By John Short
By Michael Strait
I believe this is what the young’uns refer to as a “glo-up”.
Alright, so it’s at this point that I start to sort of understand why so many people insist on calling Bobbie Gentry a country artist. I guess this is a country record, even if it only feels like it arrived there by combining folk, blues and soul in a way that sort of ended up accidentally resembling country music. There’s still lots of souly horn arrangements and folky string arrangements, and the songs are still mostly written like blues or folk songs, but the funny thing about hearing them in this context is you kinda start to realise that country music is basically just what you get when you combine blues and folk anyway. The end result, then, is a highly idiosyncratic record, and it also happens to be an utterly brilliant one.
It’s barely four minutes longer than the last one, but it’s an order of magnitude better, and I already liked that one a lot. Just about all the flaws in Ode to Billie Joe could be traced back to its rushed nature, and that constraint wasn’t present here. So, what you’re left with is a selection of twelve distinct, unique, excellently-written songs, all so tremendously rewarding that I really have no idea which track I’d pick as my favourite. Actually, I don’t really know that I could pick a least favourite track, either, which really is an exquisitely unusual achievement.
If there’s one trait this album shares with its predecessor, it’s that it’s split roughly evenly between folk songs and bluesier stuff. Most of the bluesier stuff here resides on the first half, and that includes the opening track, “Okolona River Bottom Band”, which is something of an immediate mission statement. That reserved, growling guitar riff, melding so perfectly with those blaring horns, almost gives one the impression of ominous danger before Bobbie comes in with a few “la-la-la”s and makes it clear that the song is, in fact, mostly an excellent farce. The vocal melody might be described as mock-serious, and she throws in this glorious recording of some old Southern man cackling like a lunatic at a couple of points to make it extra clear that there’s nothing particularly worrisome going on here. She has a lot of fun with her silly rhymes in the chorus, backing herself up with what are either backing vocalists or multiple tracks of her own voice to create a sense of overriding mirth. Thinking about it, I actually can’t think of many songs that pull that off – I can think of plenty of comedy songs, sure, but songs that successfully give the impression of participating in a hilarious, raucously fun communal event, bringing you right into the fun and allowing you to have a good time along with them? That’s more difficult than you’d think. The song is ridiculously catchy, layered, and – as usual for Bobbie – totally unique. On most albums, it’d be an easy favourite, but here I’m not so sure.
Of the remaining bluesy tracks, two of them are Bobbie originals. “Sermon”, the last track on what would have been the A-side back in the horrid days when vinyl was the only option, is sung remarkably quietly for being so fast-paced, as if to show reverence for the sermon she’s relaying the details of, with horns and distant choirs of backing vocalists heralding the message. I always thought it seemed a little bit like she was quietly mocking the preacher, too – “You may run on for a long time”, she repeats, ostensibly quoting him but also perhaps making fun of his long-windedness – but for the most part it doesn’t appear that she’s making much commentary on the message; she’s presenting it without comment, a slice of her life growing up in Mississippi, not to mention using it as an opportunity to deliver some of her usual beautifully-written lyrics. “Great God Almighty, let me tell you my need/ Yes, my head’s been wet with the midnight deed/ I been down on my bended knee/ Talkin’ to the man from Galilee”. I’m doubtful that the preacher used precisely those words, but I expect Bobbie’s version is an improvement.
The other one, “Reunion”, is one of the most unique creations in Bobbie’s mostly-unique catalogue, and certainly the song you’re most likely to remember the first time you listen to the album. It’s remarkably ambitious for such a profoundly silly song, seeking to sonically recreate both the physical and emotional atmosphere of an extended family gathering, piling Bobbie’s silly lyrics (“Mama make Willie quit pulling at my hair!/ Mama ouch! ouch! mama, just make Willie quit it!”) atop a choir of children singing dinner table gossip as if it were angelic verse and then interjecting the rhythmic spoken-word rhymes of an old Southern dad, or perhaps uncle, giving lackadaisical orders and making easy boasts of the sort that flow easily when there’s plentiful food. It should be an absolute mess, but instead it’s an absolute joy, and it brings a smile to my face every time. It’s not got anything resembling the usual pop song structure, because how could it? It’s very catchy, though, and I’ve had the uncle’s lines stuck in my head for weeks now. “I told you, my mama didn’t raise no fool – I can do anything if I got the right tools!” (If you listen closely, you’ll notice one of the things the choir sings about is the suicide of Billie Joe at the Tallahatchie Bridge. Bobbie was building a whole-ass shared universe before it was cool.)
The remaining bluesy songs are all covers, and every one of them is way better than “Niki Hoeky” off her last record. I actually prefer her version of “Big Boss Man” to Jimmy Reed’s, mostly because I love the quietly contemptuous way she sings it, not to mention the extra context that’s injected by those same lyrics coming from the mouth of a clearly-seething woman rather than a sardonic, depressed man. The energetic guitar riffing helps convey the unhappiness, and I love the sections where all the instruments drop except for the bass, rumbling under her nearly-whispered words of suppressed anger. There’s a similar current running under “Parchman Farm”, which is Gentry’s version of Mose Allison’s cover of Bukka White’s incredible original (linked here for the curious only, as it has little in common with either Mose’s or Bobbie’s versions). Bobbie sings it slowly and deliberately, never raising her voice and choosing to switch the perspective to third person, giving the unmistakable impression of judgement as she sings with sardonic contempt. One is unsure why, exactly, she’s being so implicitly judgemental until you reach the end, when she finally unveils the song’s famous plot twist: “Well he’s gonna be there for the rest of his life/ and all he ever did was shoot his wife”. No surprise, I guess, that a woman might see something markedly less relatable in a song about a domestic murderer proclaiming that he’s never done anything wrong, and I take the light, airy strings that come in after the conclusion of the tale as signifying happiness at justice done fairly and right.
“Tobacco Road”, meanwhile, is a song she probably knew from The Nashville Teens’ 1964 version. My favourite version of the song is probably the original, but they’re all great, and Bobbie’s is no exception. I love the way she alternates between the hard, bluesy riffing and the lush folk arrangements as she sings the brutally matter-of-fact lyrics, as if to contrast the harsh reality of deep Southern poverty with the lushness and beauty of the natural environment that surrounds it. The last of the covers is the only one that was, originally, a true-blue country song, and while I like the original just fine I must confess I’m a much bigger fan of Bobbie’s version. She conveys what sounds like genuine excitement when relaying the tale of life on the bayou, and the various extra instrumental arrangements that flourish up behind her really flesh out the picture. It’s really good fun, and a sadly rare example of totally non-toxic working class Southern pride, with no ties to any confederate nostalgia or even so much as a hint of any rebel imagery.
Even the shortest track on this album feels fully fleshed-out. “Penduli Pendulum” doesn’t break two minutes (despite the protestations of both RYM and Wikipedia, which incorrectly record the track length as nearly three minutes), but it’s got one of the catchiest melodies of the whole bunch, and the way the strings steadily build up to swirl around her voice as she sings on is just gorgeous. It’s not a particularly complex song, but it doesn’t feel like it’s lacking anything at all, and I didn’t even notice it was so short until I looked at the track listing. I’m not entirely sure what the lyrics mean, but they’re very pretty, and I love listening to her sing them. That voice is still gorgeous and unique in its faintly harsh warmth, and it fits the music like a glove.
It’s not the best folk song here, but it’s certainly not the worst – although, again, I’m not sure there even is a worst. They’re all so good! “Mornin’ Glory” is a deeply pleasant three-minute love song, containing no complicated message and no huge, attention-grabbing hook because it just doesn’t need either; it simply exists in a glowing state of loveliness, casting light and heat on all around it, sounding like the musical equivalent of reflections in a placid pool as the sun rises. “Jessye’ Lizabeth” is similarly placid, although not quite so warm; it’s a much more baroque folk song, evoking old England more than the American South, even as the lyrics remain an expression of devotional love (this time to our narrator’s little daughter). But it’s just as lovely to listen to, chiefly because the melody, for all its baroque, glacial slowness, is well-constructed enough to pop back into one’s head whenever one wishes it to, even as it deftly avoids getting stuck there and becoming irritating.
If held at gunpoint and forced to choose, I guess I’d probably pick “Refractions” as my favourite folk song here, though it’d hurt to feel like I was disrespecting the others. It’s also a little baroque and ancient-sounding, but the melody is truly, totally gorgeous, all soft and bright and huge in scope. It melds with the strings perfectly as it climbs and circulates to climax in each verse, sounding as crystalline as the bird she describes in the beautifully abstract lyrics – lyrics which are certainly some of the most gorgeous on the album, even if I’m not sure that they mean anything particularly deep. It’s a gorgeous ray of light masquerading as a song, and it truly baffles me that the woman who made it isn’t more widely celebrated.
Finally, we come to our lovely closer, “Courtyard”, which has the honor of containing my favourite lyrics on an album where almost all the songs have great lyrics. The song itself is slow, light and gorgeous, gliding softly along like mist as she sings longingly and lovingly of the tragic, love-resembling illusions in which she has trapped herself. The final couplet contains vastly more depth than most artists are able to squeeze out of entire songs. “Patterns on a courtyard floor/ Illusions of all I’m living for”, she sings acapella, the music having trailed off and left her sitting there alone, awaiting fulfillment that will never come. It’s a bit of a downer ending, considering the various mixed emotions one can find elsewhere on the album, but it’s beautiful all the same, and certainly deeply pleasant on the ears.
Looking back, I’m amazed at all the stylistic variety, emotional depth, and musical creativity she was able to squeeze into these thirty-three minutes. This is a highly efficient album, without so much as a wasted minute and lacking anything I can immediately pinpoint as a flaw. It’s an album that knows how to have fun without being embarrassing, knows how to be ambitious without being pretentious, and knows how to be heartfelt without being corny. It’s an expertly-made, remarkably perfect piece of art, and it’s a tremendous injustice that it isn’t given more credit as such. It’s unique enough that no genre gatekeepers really feel like claiming it for their canons, except for country music, which has such a frankly overpopulated canon that it can be easy to miss Bobbie in there. I can’t remember how I discovered her, but I’m very glad I did. Now y’all can too. Do yourself a favour and listen to one of the best albums of the late sixties. You deserve it, I promise.
By John Short
The very first Syd Barrett solo album, The Madcap Laughs is generally considered to be the best Syd solo outing, and while I may not entirely agree with that verdict, i will concede that it is almost certainly the most honest. Continue reading “Syd Barrett – The Madcap Laughs (1970)”
By John Short
Syd Barrett’s solo career has always weirded me out a little bit. Don’t get me wrong there’s some fantastic stuff there, but on the whole there’s just something about these albums that makes me deeply uncomfortable. I suspect most of this is simply a gut reaction to the cult that rose up around Syd in the decades following his retirement from music in 1972, which i have always found a disgusting romanticization of the suffering of a deeply talented, but troubled and sick man whose life was essentially ruined by a terrible disease. Because of this, i’ve always grappled between my enjoyment of Syd’s two completed solo albums and the feeling that there is something deeply voyeuristic and invasive about them. Ultimately, if you want to be a fan of Syd Barrett, you should listen to Piper at the Gates of Dawn, when he was healthy and in his right mind, rather than the sad little footnotes that his solo albums are when placed next to that 1967 masterwork.
With that said, Barrett’s solo career is endlessly fascinating to me, and always has been. While Syd was quite damaged mentally by the time he began his solo career, he was still remarkably talented and neither Madcap Laughs nor Barrett are anywhere near as unlistenable as common wisdom would have you believe. Several of the singles from these albums could probably have been hits if they had been arranged differently or promoted more effectively, and it’s easy to see how these records amassed the cult following they enjoy to this day. I’ll end this intro with the warning that although both Barrett solo albums were released in the same year, they are as different as night and day, and enjoying one is no guarantee that you will like the other. Syd’s solo records frequently make for a depressing and sometimes unsettling listen, but in spite (or perhaps because) of this, he has probably the best solo career of any of the members of Pink Floyd, and at the end of the day I have to respect that.
“To William, who doesn’t want a taco”
by Dina Levina
For reasons rooted deeply, we are taught from an early age the notion that pleasure is wicked. Candy is not dandy, it rots your teeth and innards. Masturbation makes you blind. Dirty words make Jesus weep. Say your prayers, have more boiled carrots. Suffer. Perpetually intertwined by the simple logic of our nerve endings, pain and pleasure bind up in a complicated knot with a little help from our family, friends and neighbors. Still, the more illicit things get, the more desirable they tend to become. Such was the case when a mystery man presented a shabby self-recorded cassette to my parents who could never hide bad things well.
The tight tangle of joy and suffering is apparent in horror stories which combine the two openly, so we are pleased by being scared. Such a tale the forbidden tape contained. Even better – two tales at once. I was about seven when a wall had cracked and, along with the intrusion of Western fizzes and sweetmeats, an illegal movie rental manifested itself in my post-Soviet hometown, bringing to its dwellers photocopied lists of movies with titles and genres only. One had to pick carefully, else risking a memorable viewing of something like Jack Frost (1997), where a wayward Snowman violates a girl with his conveniently displaced carrot. Yet some of the faceless rectangular boxes contained wonders, as the one with “Hellraiser I. Hellraiser II” printed crookedly on its soiled sticker soon attested.
It was the perfect time to watch them. My mind was wide open. Not scared but rather fascinated by what was unfolding on the compact TV screen, I absorbed every second of it with my very guts. The puzzle of what was happening to the characters consumed me, the unexplainable was gladly accepted. Two decades later I understand why it worked and still works so well – the story was made with love, a love that is contagious, incurable, permanent. The kind of love an Engineer passes onto its creation to install fear and awe for ages to go.
The story looks simple but works wonders for there’s an intricate universe behind it. Clive Barker translated his written work to the restricted language of movies well, creating a self-sufficing piece, the atmosphere perfectly intact. Like with every translation, some things are lost, some things are gained. While Frank falls wanking to the floor (a Bowie allusion?) in chapter one, his face is being assembled like a jigsaw puzzle on the same floor in the movie, because time and ratings allow the second and not the first. The one essential component from The Hellbound Heart that I miss is the smell, and if cinemas can be equipped to convey all written odors, the audiences will be in for a queer treat – who knew that cenobites smelled of vanilla?
The setting is a classic worthy of the Grimm Brothers – a clueless dad, an evil stepmother and a relatively innocent daughter arrive at an old house where Evil awaits. Unbeknownst to them, Dad’s rotten brother had a peculiar encounter with a quartet of jaded but well-dressed demonic priests of pain not long ago, and when some blood is spilled on the floorboards of the room where he died, the fairy-tale begins.
For the most part the story is driven by the stepmother, Julia, who has a relatable quest. When the movie title had to be picked, one of the female crew members suggested “What a Woman Will Do for a Good Fuck”, and was completely on point. To regain her briefly enjoyable (and somewhat censored by the producers) sex life with Frank, Julia kills a bunch of random men and fatally betrays her boring husband, but is herself deceived by her reincarnated lover. Julia happens to be the only truly well-written character in the movie – the fact that doesn’t take anything away from it. The rest work perfectly in their two dimensions. Julia has a ghost, an aim that is taboo, and a load of most bizarre obstacles.
All the tribal horrors can be found here: a no-sex marriage, adultery, inbreeding (uncle Frank with his phallic pocket knife is incest personified) and dead parents of all kinds, stepparents gone wrong and the inevitable destruction of the whole family by its lousy member. Each scene is well-written, each conflict grips you by the balls. Combine it with all the details that broaden the context (the grasshopper-eating hobo, whom I love, is an immediate reference to the Bible, and there are more fun things to find), the special effects that are truly special, considering the low budget, the creepy sound and the beautiful score by Christopher Young, and you get a perfect movie. Julia’s 80-style makeup and hairdos add subtly to the horror. The cenobite scenes are visceral (perhaps that’s how square, middle-aged people envision S&M parties) and they get etched into your memory so you can hear the teeth chatter long after the TV has been safely turned off.
Part II is far from its predecessor’s perfection, with no solid theme or plot in sight. The Lemarchand’s box remains the only three-dimensional character, the Snow White is mentioned openly, and though probably intended as a nod to the original, several scenes look second-hand (Julia chasing Kirsty between two walls in the naughty dimension mirrors the endearing Engineer scene from the first movie; the final skin twist is silly). Where in the first part there’s a heartfelt tale of people who want to have a fun sex life but fail weirdly, the second only has its ashes for a carcass, and everything falls apart with no spine to get attached to. Doctors are creepy. Hospital security is a mess. Mute girls are mysterious. Cenobites think they’ve been here forever but they are wrong. The Evil is mighty, no one really knows shit, and everything is a fucking puzzle.
The only thing that keeps me really happy during these ninety seven minutes is the hilarity of the freshly made doctor-cenobite – talking in cliché doctor phrases, dragging the perfect first line of dialogue out of the previously mute Tiffany. “And how are we feeling today?” screeches the good doctor before drilling into someone’s skull with a specially equipped tentacle, and I thank him for that. But there’s still no good story, and for me part two is forever a curious afterbirth.
When I first watched them twenty years ago, the conjoined twins on a single greasy VHS, I mistook the teaser at the end of part two for the beginning of a third movie (with no more free space to record onto, Hellraiser II had ended abruptly before the final titles). This was a happy delusion, for as the countless sequels show, the real story had ended here. There is, of course, a faceless number three, the obligatory part about cenobites in space, a movie that was just a random script with Pinhead unnaturally stuffed into it, and many, many more I dared not explore because some doors had better stay shut.
Each fairy-tale has its moral, and some of Charles Perrault’s even have two, at which I pondered while reading the book that should’ve been forbidden for kids but wasn’t. So pick your moral. Sweet things can kill you, sometimes faster than you may have suspected. Sex is bad. Grasshoppers are nutritious. Bad guys come back and good ones don’t. Suffering can be a pleasure. As for the second part, the moral is quite simple: one should always dispose of an old mattress in a safe, responsible way.
A little too wild, but sincere and it shows. Let the band play, Brucey.
Review by: Charly Saenz (Out of competition!)
Assigned by: Marissa Ashenfarb
There was once an American Rocker, with big hearted dreams and small pubs gigs, his relentless band with great musicians, and his own music to go along. No, I’m not talking about the Piano Man (Elton John!). This is not the arena rock Bruce you’ll get to know (and love, I bet), mind you. This is a wild and innocent young man who played as hard and as black as he could (Dream on White Boy…). Innocent young man I said? Well it’s hard to be a saint in the city but.. that’s a story from the future.
Bruce tastes all kind of flavours in his debut. Which is fine, it’s a candy store (rock) and you gotta see what’s your thing. The opening song “The E-Street Shuffle”, is quite the R&B affair, heavy bass, all horns, Motown in the chorus. Fabulous song if you ask me, full of space for the band. God, these days Bruce was not that far from Paul Weller.. in 5 years.
I gotta tell you about Garry W. Tallent (adequate last name): what a bass player! and he played the tuba too. Smart guy, the boss, saving money in the horns section.
In other spots, Bruce starts to develop his traditional style. It doesn’t always work for me. Sometimes I feel Bruce sings too many words, and sometimes there’s too much of a big, convoluted sound (dangerously close to that ugly mammoth called “Born To Run”), as in “Rosalita”, which in fact has no spanish (or mexican or whatever) musical tone in my opinion to go along with the title. Well, the slower parts work much better, I’m not such a fan of the E-Street band rave-ups. I try to dance to it, but my head hurts. Worst thing is, this is “la piece de resistance” in this album. It’s not bad at all, but a little underwhelming for me.
Other classics here like “4th of july, Asbury Park” work better – I’ve always loved Sandy and Mary and all her sisters and their stories: sue me. But I think at this moment Sandy wasn’t ready for the prime time, in lyrics terms. There’s too much words and I don’t feel moved (Compare “The aurora is risin’ behind us/The pier lights our carnival live forever” with any bit in The River or Darkness In The Edge Of Town and you’ll see). Still it’s a nice lullaby and I’d play it in the porch while waiting for.. Sandy, you know. Random thought: In a way Mark Knopfler might be more of a Springsteen son than Dylan’s if you think about it. There’s that italian canzonetta feel in the chorus: Good.
Another highlight is “Kitty’s Back” – This would have fit snuggedly in Shaft’s soundtrack, my God. This is good, as “Born To Run” can’t even dream to be (though the lyrics were better there: you can’t have it all). The groove is fantastic. I can almost hear “Heatwave” in parts. WAIT is that Clarence at 6:35? You betcha. Taking control, the man. Goosebumps.
“Wild Billy’s Circus Story”? I’m on the fence about this one. This is all about the lyrics now, and this goes like what? “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” all over! (OH WAIT Dylan hasn’t released that yet?). One thing I’ll tell you: the tuba is amazing: Tallent. And about 3:00 there’s some delicious guitar plucking, some mean harmonica and a sweet banjo. I’m sold, alright, you get a pass. Anyway, “Incident on 57th street” is more directly engaging, and I love what Vini Lopez did here on drums, but the whole band shines after Bruce runs out of lyrics, finally (that lonely bass & drum at around 4:00 with Bruce smoothly crooning, well done) Bruce plays that guitar solo on the end? Really? that’s slick. And the piano coda is a little delight too.
To wrap things up, “New York City Serenade” starts on a mystery classic tone. Film Noir Springsteen, you know. A different scene indeed. Bruce’s voice is different too (A motorbike accident? Woodstock retirement?). Well after all it’s a serenade. And all of a sudden at 5:20 there’s a gospel surge! Just a bit. And then some soul, jazzy piano and that magnificent bass. It’s a cute little (but long, yet not overlong) song to say goodbye for now. Clarence does his bits too. Wasn’t he a little underused? Or misused? I’m never sure, but he was a heck of a player.
All in all this is a humble, heartfelt album. Some songs might use a little trimming? I don’t know, it would break the freedom feeling, perhaps. The lyrics are traditional Boss stuff but, the expertise is not there yet, for sure. I like the soulful parts. A lot. It will be better by the second album. Then eventually it will all become too much: Landau, you ruined my boy!
Review By: Charly Saenz
Assigned By: Michael Strait
The Bees and The Flowers And That Loneliness Inside Makes You Wanna Rap.
I thought this was a sort of Hip Hop compilation, but in fact there’s a lot of guest singers here. Tyler the Creator is well.. The Creator (“lead vocals, production, recording, art, packaging design”). That kinda intrigued me: why would a rapper whose primary function is to be the frontman, invite other people to do his job? Outsourcing is still a great plan!
My take here was: ignore the rapping, for now at least. So, while the cassette rewinded, I went and bought me a sandwich. We need a picture!
I’m not sure how much Frank Ocean embellished “Where This Flower Blooms” but the ending is gorgeous. Oh hold on – there’s a guy actually singing in “See You Again”! This could even be a song in a Doris day movie! I feel there’s a flower vibe here (Is this a concept album of sorts?). The rapping sorta ruins it at 1:34! Oh well that’s what the business is all about. But it’s just a bit. Good for tea time.
I’m sinking into isolation and anxiety now.. I mean that’s the album theme it seems – so it’s working. “Who Dat Boy” starts with some buzzing sounds, until a heavy bass underlines the bad words rapped full blast. Mind numbing.
After a few minutes with my head under the water, I’m back. “Pothole” is a bit more in the Barry White style but ain’t this a little muzak? “Garden Shed” starts off like a Who tune! I know it! I know it! I think it might be something from Quadrophenia, no wait it’s “See Me Feel Me”. Who wouldn’t like a Who Opera? Well, sampling is legal, let’s move on. Nice little song!
Anyway I’m quite bored, I gotta say. Until a song called “Boredom” comes along: affinity, you see. There’s some singing here, I like it. It’s like that movie “Breakfast in Tiffany”. Cool and comfy. Someone raps in the middle: who invited this guy? It’s quite the neo soul thing I guess.
Next song sounds quite similar but.. oh, I somehow repeated “Boredom” (makes sense). I went directly to “911/Mr Lonely” because “I Ain’t Got Time”. Let’s inject some lyrics here, people never read, never listen to the words:
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
My thirst levels are infinity and beyond
Sippin’ on that lemonade, I need a Beyoncé
Can’t see straight, these shades are Céline Dion”
Master rhyming, if you ask me. It’s true – the album is about loneliness! I see it now. Reviewers are so smart. Oh there’s a fancy keyboard trick under the rapper (move move!) that is quite fun. At 2:15.
The Grand Finale: “Enjoy Right Now, Today”. There’s a kid in there (“Isn’t She Lovely” was better at this, mind you), a small casio keyboard and a martial drums loop. Not sure what this all means. Didn’t I hear this song in some cooking TV show? Oh, wait.. my sandwich!
Review By: Michael Strait
Full of failures, and not yet the fun kind.
After reviewing a couple of consistently good/great artists in a row, I decided to try something a little different. Reviewing good music gets boring after a while, but I didn’t just wanna review some horrible shit right away. Now, how about an artist with a lot of raw talent who often messes it up with terrible artistic choices, who seems determined to compensate for her incredible, preternatural sense of melody with the worst taste imaginable? Ah, now we’re talking. Continue reading “STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga – The Fame (2008)”
Review By: Michael Strait
The last in a short line. Still lovely, though not really any more or less so than the other ones.
Three four-star records in a row, eh? On the one hand, the consistency is remarkable, but on the other hand I can’t help but wonder if she ever had it in her to achieve a real masterpiece. Alas, I guess we’ll never know – the plane crash in ’63 put paid to that. Wikipedia tells me the church bell in her hometown still rings out a hymn every day at 6pm in her memory, which I’m sure she’d appreciate. Still, best not to dwell on such mortal matters of flesh and blood – the music lives on regardless, and there ain’t a blemish on it.
I’ll confess, though, that the first half of this album had me worried I wouldn’t have much to write about. The songs are all good, but for the most part they’re just, y’know, Patsy Cline songs: slow, sparse, atmospheric, nocturnal, tragic and beautiful, lovely to listen to and almost impossible to write about individually. “She’s Got You”, “That’s My Desire” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” – a Hank Williams cover, though actually most of these songs are technically covers – are all perfectly gorgeous and, really, perfectly identical, save perhaps for a nice little mini-crescendo near the end of the latter. “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want To Do It)”, meanwhile, is distinguished only by the particularly heartbroken inflection she puts on the words “give me, give me, give me what I c-ry fooor”, her voice cracking as she begs.
It’s remarkable, actually, how much of Patsy Cline’s music is about not just misery, but the loss of all dignity and internal strength; it’s music about suffering emotional wounds so deep that they scar you forever, and every song carries with it the assumption that no happy ending is anywhere in sight. You can hear it on “Strange”, too, with its circling guitars and dolefully placid vocal melody underlying lyrics about a profound level of powerlessness. “Strange you’re still in all my dreams/ Oh, what a funny thing/ I still care for you”, she proclaims to her unfaithful erstwhile lover, still trapped in his memory, permanently rent in two by his betrayal.
She sounds similarly wounded on “You Were Only Fooling (While I Was Falling In Love)”, a song which also serves to remind me how truly tragic it is that pop music has largely forgotten how to tastefully apply the string section. The strings here are part of the tapestry, a central but minimally-applied component to the atmosphere, adding just the right amount of extra smoothness to the gleaming little globe of perfectly-polished sorrow from which Patsy croons her heart out. When did string sections in pop music become irretrievably associated with schmaltz and melodrama? There’s so much more you can do with a few carefully-applied violins than bury your singer in sap. Alas, it’s an art we seem to have buried next to dear Patsy.
I wish she’d done a few more faster numbers in her career, ‘cos the ones on here are both great and unique. “Heartaches” sounds remarkably propulsive for such a sparse song; its rhythm is derived only from a walking swingy bassline and a lilting guitar skank, with the drums almost nonpresent in their quiet minimalism, and yet it still sounds perfectly danceable without giving up that heavenglow charm I associate with Patsy. “Anytime” performs a similar trick, adding lovely little wind instrument flourishes and a string section that melds so perfectly to the choir that they fuse into one glowing instrument. All rather gorgeous, and the sort of music I’d have loved to see her explore more. Oh, alas, if it hadn’t been for that plane crash…
There are a lot of questions about Patsy’s career that crash left forever unanswered. Would she ever have come into her own as a songwriter, rather than simply a singer of other people’s songs? Was there potential in her to grow from merely a great lamenter of heartbreak to an exploratory, boundary-pushing artist, or would she have remained in a comfort zone of steadily diminishing returns for the rest of her life? It’s impossible to answer those questions now, of course, but at least she’s left us with some lovely music to relax to if the mood ever takes us. Now, what next? Another woman, that’s for sure – gotta counteract that UGK misogyny somehow. Stay tuned, I s’pose…
Review by: Michael Strait
Paintings of an America composed mostly of light, purity, and emotional pain.
Man, I’m still kind of amazed that this music was once as popular as it was. I had no idea the American public once had such a fondness for atmospheric minimalism! “Crazy” is still a bar karaoke classic in the South (and possibly elsewhere too – I can only speak from my experiences) to this day, and that usually stops making sense to me the moment I leave the establishment. It’s a heartbroken ballad, sure, but it seems like kind of a weird one by my modern standards. The instrumentation is more concerned with creating an atmosphere than conveying a specific emotion, as if it’s trying to construct the sort of environment in which a loving connection could, conceivably, be found and then lost rather than actively trying to evoke the way it feels. But what’s most fascinating about the song – and, indeed, the album as a whole – is that this atmosphere is conjured mostly by suggestion, with sparse, barely-there instruments sketching faint outlines of an emotional universe that you are encouraged to fill with your own experiences. I, personally, think the faint pianos and barely-audible rhythm guitar scratches of “Crazy” evoke the lovely emptiness of the American South on a not-unpleasantly warm summer’s night, but that’s almost certainly just my personal biases leaking onto the canvas. The architecture is here for you to provide your own setting for Patsy’s plaintive wailing, and that’s true of much of the album.
It’s evident right away, with “I Fall To Pieces”. Like the rest of the album, it’s mostly very sparse – just a bassline and vocals, really – but it sounds like far more is hiding in the distance, occasionally making suggestions of itself visible for a second or two at a time. Par example: there’s a little three-note guitar refrain that pops up repeatedly in the verses, laden with softly chiming echo effects and matched by a quiet male backing choir, casting a dim and momentary glow over the fields from the heavens before folding back into the vast, velvet darkness that blankets all things, smothering the world in tranquility and peace. Shortly thereafter, we reach “The Wayward Wind”, which sounds as if it has entirely disconnected itself from human foibles and flaws and exists in some ephemeral dreamworld, floating atop tremulous string arrangements and egoless guitar. The flawless beauty of these environments does not, of course, do much to ease poor Patsy’s soul – still she wails out her heart about missed moments, lost love and the miseries of life without companionship, immersed in the ceaseless beauty of this American dreamscape and yet lacking a soul to share it with.
“I Love You So Much It Hurts” is the other song that immediately jumps out at me as a big highlight. It’s barely two minutes, but the world itself seems to slow to a crawl as you listen, with a glacial mist of low organs, near-imperceptible guitar chimes and soft backing vocals coating the world in a ghostly, angelic haze that shields one from the passage of time. It’s easy to get lost in this world, at least until the dancier, more energetic “Seven Lonely Days” jolts you out of the dream-haze and into a more physical, motive world with fewer distractions from poor Patsy’s endless heartbreak. If it seems like a weaker song in comparison, then that’s only fair – it’s a great song, but how can it compare to the rich tapestry that preceded it?
If there’s a flaw with this album, it’s that it’s a little frontloaded. “Crazy” is the last real highlight, save perhaps for a rerecording of “Walkin’ After Midnight” which is just a teensy bit more polished and, alas, less devastating than the original. The other songs on the post-“Crazy” second half are all beautiful, but they contribute to the overriding atmosphere of the album more than they set themselves apart as individual pieces. Great for laying back and bathing in, but if I were to analyse them I’d pretty much just be repeating myself, so I won’t bother. Of the couple of songs on the first half that I’ve not covered, “Foolin’ Round” is very intriguing in that it is nearly impossible to identify any of the individual instruments played on it save for the bass, so successfully do they meld into one unit. “South of the Border (Down Mexico Way)”, meanwhile, isn’t quite on the level of brilliance of its immediately surrounding brethren but nonetheless feels like it exists in a far less corporeal world than our own, evoking mystical concepts and distant lands only vaguely corresponding to the places we know as Mexico or suchlike.
Pop music, eh? Amazing what the public is capable of appreciating so long as it comes packaged with relatable lyrics. This is as painterly and atmospheric as any ambient music, and it doesn’t sacrifice an ounce of emotional impact for it. Certainly worth your time as much as any Oren Ambarchi record. Now, how long shall I make my dedicated three-or-so readers wait until my next review? I’m thinking maybe five hundred years…