Rag’n’Bone Man – Wolves

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It seems fans of Soul music have annoying purists. I know, it sounds weird. Soul music at its best is so warm and welcoming. Whether you’re bumping the aimless, hook-free stuff of Marvine Gaye or Stevie’s more melodic works, Soul is never high brow, never patronizing the listener. In complete opposition to the rock of the 70’s, Soul music is just an ordinary man with a prettier voice. Clearly, in listening to it nothing should matter much besides having good melodies, a good voice and an all-around charm.

This is too much to ask apparently, so we’re back to questions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘real Soul’. Since Rag’n’Bone Man – the most Bluesy name you can come up with since Seasick Steve – doesn’t have a Funk track going on for 10 minutes and endless falsetto without a tune, this is ‘bland Soul’. Come to think of it, Marvin Gaye was just showing off his vocal acrobatics over lightweight Funk. If that is ‘real Soul’, I’ll take Rag’n’Bone’s version any day. He has better hooks and his music is something more besides beating you over the head with how wonderful the world is because you’re a singer with a pretty voice.

Speaking of beautiful voice, writing off Rag’n’Bone as generic is odd. The last time such a gloomy, pessimistic artist hit the chart was, well, the Weeknd or Melanie Martinez. His music is actually not that close to Charlie Puth. He’s not a revivalist, churning out the old love songs with some horns and a more coherent song structure. His roots go way back, to the earliest of Folk music back when all there was to sing about was death.

This album is such a gloomy, death-obsessed thing. Rag’n’Bone sounds either at a funeral, on the verge of dying, after killing someone or before killing someone. Of course his low voice is the main attraction but it’s also how he uses it. His style of singing is the opposite of vocal acrobatics. That’s why comparing him to Soul singers is a bit odd, since he rarely takes those flights Marvin Gaye is famous for. Althoug falsetto occasionally leaks, it’s never dominant. What is dominant is how low his voice is, so low it might as well be buried.

The best expression of that is in the title track where he truly sounds dangerous. On the verses he’s frantic and almost loses the melody, but on the chorus the voice is so low you can imagine him trying really, really hard to contain himself form whatever danger is inside of him. It’s obviously about something inside of him that’s he’s scared of. The da-da-da voices in the backgrounds aren’t helpful. They are the voices in your head encouraging you to hurt or to cause mayhem. To think such a song will top the charts is uncanny. Such a song is too gloomy, too dangerous and too scared of itself to be comfortable. All the brutal screams Death Metal bands come up with, and they can’t reach the fear of the self in that song.

On the other side you get “Guilty”, which is a breakbeat-laden Blues thing where Rag’n’Bone claims he’s not guilty for feeling about hurting the lover he just woke up next to. Already in the opening lines we get death, because somewhere in this ‘million ways to hurt’ there must be an element of violence. Two lines later he writes the lover off completely. Although the rest of the song is simply about leaving a person, the first lines and those hard drums did their thing. Again, his low voice contributes a lot. It adds a layer of toughness and darkness to it all. Any other singer couldn’t evoke the image of death.

Death includes the loss of others, and “Life in Her Yet” is a more subdued number where he tries desperately to cling to someone who’s dead or lost all their memory. The repetition of the title is him trying desperately to convince himself you can defeat death, but saying that he ‘can’t let go’ isn’t a sign of strength but of weakness. He needs her. He cannot live with someone dying. In this song there is no incredibly low voice, but soft and defeated singing.

These are the main attratctions, but every song has the spectre of death hunting them. After all there’s a song called “Lay My Body Down”. Whatever “Reuben’s Train” is about, he sings it like a dirge at a funeral. From the singing alone, low and stretching into infinity you can deduce that the subject of the song must be dead. “No Mother” transforms the stomping work songs (that were all about death) with bass wobbles. Despite the EDM influence, it doens’t add any joy to the song.

He achieves this atmosphere successfuly because he understands how old Folk music works. He’s closer to Dock Boggs than anyone contemporary. The brand of ‘serious music’ he’s been grouped with, the bland wailing of Adele and Ed Sheeran are nowhere to be found. Always he’s a slave to the melody, but in the old days where all you had was a pickaxe and a banjo you couldn’t wail like you’re on the X-Factor. Sure, his voice is more polished and he has a greater variety in tone. Most Folk singers couldn’t pull off both “Guilty” and “Life in Her Yet” since they’re completely opposite characters. Now this may seem inauthentic, but by being aware of the overall theme of death he connects these two. They become two different expressions of the same theme.

3.5 wolves out of 5

Tom Waits – Closing Time

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The sound of this album isn’t as surprising as how good it is, and what it actually is. You’ve heard it before. Before Waits was an ashtray given a singing voice, before he unleashed an Industrial-Blues masterpiece that was more horrifying than any Death Metal album cover he made Closing Time. In a way, this is the antithesis of his later career, with zero wild theatrics. Before Waits was the bizarro man reporting from the bizarro world, he was too ordinary to do anything but sing about heartbreak.

Even if Waits never made Bone Machine, this record would still be spectacular. I’m amazed this was even made and praised. As we know, males are supposed to be tough in society. No one goes out with a failure. The only time men are allowed to cry on stage is if they turn their wounds into theater of noise and anger. The whole rock’n’roll thing, especially in the depressed 90’s was about that.

So Reznor and that dude from Alice in Chains still sounded like tough males, somewhat. Nothing against them – Nine Inch Nails are my favorite band after all. It’s just that male vulnerability is so interesting, feels so hidden in real life yet here it is in music. The final song here lets go of words.

If the whole album is a concept album about singing in a bar hoping that it might attract that girl on the corner to like you, then the final instrumental is defeat. “Ol’ 55” opens with some happiness, the sound of you going to the bar hoping there’ll be a good show. “I Hope” comes right after when you spot the girl, and after that it’s constant swinging from one extreme to the next. On “Ice Cream Man”, you have confidence and you’re sure it’s going to work. “Lonely” is when it feels like a death sentence, you’ll never have the girl and nothing else ever. Eventually, there’s no point in singing – it’s closing time, the band plays a few more chords and melodies and you’re back home alone.

It’s such a lonely record. “Martha” is heartbreaking, a song I still find it difficult to hear. Although Waits mentions he got a lover, possibly a wife, it’s not convincing that he’s okay with it. Defeat is in his tone when he sings of poetry and prose, singing with the knowledge that no relationship will ever be that good. “Martha” is painful not because it’s about meeting with someone you used to be deeply in love with. All over it is the realization that nothing will ever be like this again, that all love afterwards is just an attempt to re-capture it. There’s a sense of doom there that’s just sad.

“I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” is the second big highlight there. There are a lot of songs about love and heartbreak, but not enough about disliking being in love. Finally we have a song that admits it, falling in love is no fun and sometimes it’s just better not to experience the whole thing. This song sets the stage and gives everything here the context. On this album, Waits isn’t someone who goes through the pain and joy of heartbreak. Love is, overall, bad for Waits. Few songs here are actually about being in the relationship – perhaps only “Little Trip” and by the time it arrives it sounds more like fantasy. Remember that “Ice Cream Man” is courting, not love actually working out. Although “Lonely” isn’t the best song here, it eventually becomes its centerpiece. It’s an album of loneliness, of heartbreak with no way out. In this album heartbreak isn’t something you go through but a state you’re trapped in – either hoping it won’t happen, to clinging to a girl, to being stuck in your memories and eventually admitting to yourself how lonely you are.

“Martha” and “I Hope” are the highlights, with most things providing good transition to flesh out the concept idea. While everything here is pretty good, these songs are knock-outs and everything else mostly sounds good in context. It’s an album you reach out to when you’re in a specific mood, but when the night is dark, long and lonely everything here is great. Outside this context, these songs can lack personality. “Rosie” is pretty good, but I doubt anyone would remember it outside the album. Bring the aforementioned context again and the song becomes essential. This is an album to hear in one sitting when heartbreak makes it feel like nothing good will ever happen. I’m sure there are many albums like it, but Waits is so specific in how he captures this hopeless loneliness. It’s unique because of how well it understands its genre and that’s why it remains a shocking record. Even if Waits never became the morbid blues man, this record would remain just as great.

3.5 empty bottles out of 5

Arctic Monkeys – Humbug

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It’s amazing how you can both capture a sound perfectly and have no idea what to do with it. The problem with Humbug isn’t that it’s a departure. They didn’t sounded too excited about the Dance-Punk sound in the previous album anyway. The problem isn’t necessarily the lack of hooks because plenty of records can survive without hooks.

The problem is they’re playing a form of psychedelia that relies on melodies. Psychedelic music is often melodic and accessible. It uses weird sounds along with an easy melody to make something both weird and accessible. That’s why “Tomorrow Never Knows” is so popular (or at least covers of it).

This is not the Heavy Psych that blasts off to outer space. It’s closer to “Planet Caravan” and Monster Magnet’s ballads. These songs were brilliant because their sound enchanted already great melodies. “Planet Caravan” would’ve been nothing if the melody wasn’t sound so close to the lonely Bluegrass style.

“Crying Lightning” is the best song here for that reason. It’s one of the few here that actually has a chorus. The fact that it progresses and reaches a conclusion is just a bonus. It has a catchy melody that benefits from the sound. Turner drops words like ‘twisted and deranged’ which are perfect for this music.

Everything else, however, tries too hard to be ominious. The band is obsessed with beeing spooky. Turner stopped being a sex-mad smug asshole. Maybe it has something to do with erectile dysfunction. On “My Propeller”, he lets us know in the climatic bridge that he can’t get hard. Such issues affect a man, especially one who bragged about having sex with girls he doesn’t like.

That song sums up the album well. It has no chorus. The chorus has Turner whispering “have a spin of my propeller” not in a sexy manner. It’s as if he’s standing behind your back in a haunted house. It sounds pathetic because it’s such an obvious technique to make you look scary.

Or maybe it’s actually about drugs. That’s a better explanation of the rest of the songs. They sound druggy in a good way. The guitar licks and rolling drums in that sound like a calm before the storm. They can’t keep the atmosphere for long. It’s not even good enough for the song which saved by its catchy climax.

There are other tricks, many of them impressive and none of them are enough. “Pretty Visitors” has tempos shifts and thudding drums that are coming after you. The sound effects in “Secret Door” are supposed to fit the title, but too bad the melody is uninspired. Turner doesn’t even sound like he’s singing an actual melody but just mumbles things.

The sound fails mainly because it doesn’t serve the songs. The end of “My Propeller” and “Crying Lightning” would sound much worse in any other sound. Instead of sounding seductive, Turner sounds like a desperate and perhaps dangerous addict on the latter song.

On all the other songs, it just makes for a ‘huh, that’s cool’ reaction. They sound like demos, ideas that are worth attempting but are so new to the band that they’re only worthwhile for a B-Side compilation. The lack of confidence isn’t just because the band moved from the loud Dance-Punk. It’s because they have no idea what to do with the sound, even if it sounds cool.

Smack in the middle of this album you get the gorgeous “Cornerstone”. It’s a ballad that’s closer to “505”. The band has a fuzzy relationship with ballads. Turner is too arrogant to get them right but when they get it, they made brilliant ones. “Cornerstone” is one of those. It’s sad that this song got buried here. “Crying Lightning” at least makes everything around it worth attempting. “Cornerstone” should’ve been on the better next album.

It’s an interesting album and a stepping stone for the band. Their later albums proved they still got it in them and they were just confused. I’m sure this sounded worse when it came out. Albums like these are either a death sentence or a stepping stone to a new era. The Monkeys haven’t outdone their debut (and probably never will), but this sounds much better in retrospect, when you know they got over this confusion.

2.5 cornerstones out of 5

The Doors – The Doors

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I wonder if people who think ‘music isn’t as good as it used to be’ are taking the same drugs the Doors were into. You don’t have to go too far into modern times for this to sound dated. A year after this came out Iron Butterfly dropped “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. It was the same year the famous version of “Just Dropped In” was released. How did this stick in people’s consciousness?

I can understand why, but it’s not a flattering reason. The Doors sound like the protoypical ‘classic rock’ album. It’s a little loud, it has sex in it and some psychedelia to give it an edge. It has some long songs and it sounds very important. That’s the difference between “Light My Fire” and that Iron Butterfly song. Iron Butterfly just got a banging bassline and rode for 17 minutes. The Doors were sure they discovered new frontiers.

Maybe they did back then. The record has some charm in how big it is and how much it thinks of itself. Every song is deliberate, revolving a clear idea. The sequencing makes perfect sense. The first is a fast-paced rocker. The second is a macho pick-up-women song. The third is a weirder psychedelic ballad. The band wisely chooses these songs to introduce people to basics. “Light My Fire” comes later, after you’re used to the band to show you they can be weird.

Of course, ‘weird’ back then meant long songs and free improvisation. “Light My Fire” just sounds like an ordinary rock song with a jamming session. It works there because finally the band lets out all the energy they have. Add an extra minute or so to that section and the song wouldn’t be any worse.

The difference between that song and everything else is that it’s less caught up in making a statement. Compare it to “The End” (which sounded way better when I saw Apocalypse Now). “The End” doesn’t justify its length. The band tries hard to let you know this is the climatic ending with drum rolls, a serious atmosphere and Jim Morrison telling you it’s the end. The result is just showing off, but no energy or fun or substance. On “Light My Fire”, they just bang their instruments.

The album is part of the era before Rock was divorced from its rock influence. It’s no wonder artists were so confused. Only later artists like Black Sabbath and Five Horse Johnson knew how Blues worked and combined it with loud guitars. The band thinks being theatrical equals to being bluesy. The cultural appropriation debate is pretty stupid, but not as “Back Door Man”. It’s better than Led Zeppelin’s attempts, but it sounds the guys heard some Blues on the radio and made a song based on a few parts.

Even at their best, it’s just serviceable classic rock to play in bars so no one would get offended. There’s nothing really annoying about “Soul Kitchen” or “Break On Through”. They’re pretty catchy and fun, but they don’t have that attitude that made “Just Dropped In” so successful.

Psychedelic Rock can work in two ways. Either the band sounds like they’re off in another dimension, or that they make a melodic, pleasant song with weird sounds. The Doors only try the former on “The End” and “End of the Night”. Neither of them are weird enough, but the latter is good enough to make it the blueprint for the next album. When they try the other method, they make some pleasant music but nothing like the Zombies or Monster Magnet or “Planet Caravan”. The worst are the songs where their sense of self-importance comes through. “Take It As It Comes” is the sort of Classic Rock crap that ignorant listeners think is ‘meaningful’.

I heard that Morrison’s lyrics are supposed to be a big deal. I hear nothing attention-grabbing. No lyrics are bad or good. What exactly is a soul kitchen? I don’t know, but the song doesn’t make me care to find out. It’s easy to assume Morrison just wants to have sex with that woman. Weird lyrics that don’t make sense are a lot of fun. Even if the lyrics were moronic, I would’ve enjoyed them. Morrison’s lyrics are just various ways to tell a woman he wants sex without the vulgarity. It’s less impressive on record.

There are some fun songs here, but what’s the point? The psychedelic parts are rudimentary and you’re better off with their next album, or any of Monster Magnet’s psychedelic works. If you enjoyed the bluesy stuff here, check their own L.A. Woman or Black Sabbath. The Doors sound excited here. It does make these ideas sound new, but everyone – including the band – improved on this.

2 doors out of 5

Clutch – Psychic Warfare

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Clutch are, what, 24 years old now?

That’s a very old age in Rock & Roll, especially when your music is about driving rock. Most bands burn out or get tired of rocking. They take the stage, get the girls and lose the frustration that makes for good loud music. Even the best turn artistic. Monster Magnet rediscovered Psychedelia and Local H flirted with Progressive Rock as soon as their started moving units.

Clutch never had that artistic bent. They were all about riffs and catchy hooks. You could lump them up other dumb Hard Rock like Drowning Pool and Nickelback. The only difference between them and Clutch is that Clutch had better hooks and and outsider’s perspective.

Clutch were outsiders, and still were. For all of their rocking and rolling, they had weird lyrics that were poetic as they made little sense. Neil isn’t a big rock star out for the sex and money. He’s a weirdo who likes turning up his weirdness loud.

That makes them an almost perfect band. Combine the hooks with the odd lyrics, and they sound more badass than anyone else. This also gave them a glass ceiling. They were so focused on just kicking rock songs that they will never make a masterpiece. If there was some hope in the past they might knock one out, it’s all gone on Psychic Warfare.

It’s a confusing album that will only make sense depending on what comes after. It’s either the sound of a band giving up and not even trying to make a “Mice and Gods”, or it’s the sound of a band being comfortable in their place and just having fun.

The first tracks rock hard and got the energy, but none of the hooks. They’re driven by sound with the melodies as an afterthought. “X-Ray Visions” isn’t sure what the melody for the hook is. If it wasn’t for Neil’s brilliant lyrics and charisma, the song would’ve been boring to death. “A Quick Death in Texas” is the only chorus that sticks, and would’ve been just another good song on Robot Hive/Exodus.

Clutch may be giving up, but every song is performed with enthusiasm. Clutch sound happy in their place. Neil sounds like he’s happy to spit big words like ‘dynamite’ and ‘telekenetic’ on “X-Ray Visions”. In another band’s hands, it would run out of steam in 30 seconds.

The second best song here is “Noble Savage”, and it’s where the band (again) declares how rock and roll is their life. It doesn’t have a melody, but the band sounds so energized that it’s convincing. Neil might be 43 years, but no one sounds better than him at capturing the appeal of rock and roll. It’s about having fun and letting out your weirdness. Other bands try to convince you they’re having fun by singing about how much sex they have. Neil has a wide-eyed approach that makes “Decapitation Blues” sound more fun than them. That one is about neck damage from headbanging.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Clutch are more interesting in performing live than writing songs. These songs are more about loudness and energy than melody. They’ve been rocking weird for 24 years. How much left do they have to say? Still, if they perform these songs with the energy it promises it means Clutch should keep going. If it’s a sign of things to come though, maybe they should stop. They’re still a melodic rock band, and a good live show is hard to make of bad songs nobody wanted to write.

3 noble savages out of 5

Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor

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The progress of shock artists is hilarious. Both Marilyn Manson and Eminem rose at the same time. Both were attacked for ruining America’s youth. Both had huge commercial and critical success, although the white rapper was more favoured. On the surface, it’s obvious. Eminem’s dexterity, great rhymes and the occasional depth is out in the open. Marilyn Manson was equally good, perhaps better, but on the surface all he had was noise. You’d expect Manson to run out of ideas quicker, but the fact more people care about Eminem in 2015 doesn’t mean much. Manson has expanded his sound, while Eminem is still trying to shock people with dissing female pop stars.

The Pale Emperor is the ideal record for a middle-aged shock rocker. It reveals Manson didn’t set out to shock for shock’s sake. His shocking image would have been there even if it hadn’t got him the attention. The Pale Emperor‘s themes and style sounds less shocking in comparison only because it’s 2015, and Manson doesn’t feel like making so much noise. He’s more into the blues that he explored in The High End of Low and big, stomping drums.

His blues is closer to Five Horse Johnson than Led Zeppelin, meaning it actually sounds like blues. Manson borrow not just the structure of blues but its atmosphere. He managed to re-create the grittiness and desolation of Blind Willie Johnson, although with a different purpose. This may sound like an attempt to move forward, but instead it’s just a middle-aged aritsts indulging in what he likes because he doesn’t care anymore. More than any other Manson record, The Pale Emperor sees him not trying to say anything.

It’s not a first for Manson, but this lack of concept acted differently in Golden Age and High End of Low. Golden Age was a break from making ambitious albums, but it was still full of noise and hooks. High End of Low was a break from being a rock star, which allowed Manson to throw himself at any crazy idea because he doesn’t owe anybody anything. The Pale Emperor just sees him kicking some bluesy rock and that’s it. It doesn’t hint at any future.

Once you get used to the blues rock, there are no more experiments. The Pale Emperor coasts along, delivering catchy hooks over stomping drums. Manson’s lyrics are still there, and he still tries any wordplay he can think of (“I can’t tell if you wear me out/or wear me well”), but it doesn’t aim at any big picture. Only “Killing Strangers” sounds like it has a message, but Manson decides not to hammer it in. “Deep Six” is a throwback to Golden Age and Holy Wood, but it’s played with nostalgia, not with excitement of new sounds

On paper, it sounds bad. It would sound boring if any artists made such an album, but an album like this from Manson sounds worse. On record, it’s great. It’s not his best, and it’s not trying but every track here works. “Deep Six” is just as good as his old material, and “Third Day of a Seven Day Binge” and “The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles” are just as good as their titles. He seemed to have lost the knack for ballads, because “Odds of Even” and “Warship My Wreck” are saved only because Manson plays them. The track that defines the album is “The Devil Beneath My Feer”. Manson never sounded so carefree and happy. It could easily be covered by Neon Trees or Grouplove.

The Pale Emperor is the one record that outsiders may enjoy the most from Manson. The shocking part was the least likeable element, and now that he threw it away what remained was an entertaining rock album. He probably won’t drop another classic, but if he still sounds like he’s got some more hooks and cool song titles in him.

3 emperors out of 5