REVIEW: ROLLING STONES – EL MOCAMBO ’77

By 1977, the Rolling Stones were in trouble. Their previous albums, It’s Only Rock’n Roll and Black and Blue, did not match the heights of their halcyon run of legendary albums from 1968 to 1973. The loss of Mick Taylor was a tremendous blow to them artistically, and Keith Richards’ drug habit was spiraling out of control and affecting his musical ability. Despite bringing in former Faces guitarist Ron Wood to the fold, the band struggled to match the fireworks of their peak years, and their live shows had become sloppy and lethargic, lacking in the vigor and danger that made their 1971-73 treks among rock’s most celebrated live experiences.

After their widely criticized 1976 tour of Europe, the band themselves realized what everyone had known for some time: the Stones needed an injection. Not the kind that was slowly killing Keith, but a fresh, energetic platform to reestablish themselves as rock’s most exciting band and a true force to be reckoned with.

On March 4th and 5th, 1977, the band booked two gigs at Toronto’s legendary El Mocambo club, a 500 seat venue where local bands made their bones, as opposed to the 20,000 seat arenas the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band had grown accustomed to since their 1960s’ heyday. Keith had just been busted in Toronto on a heroine charge, so the performance was a sort of goodwill gesture in that regard. The band hadn’t played in a venue of this size since they were starting out.

Bootlegs of this show have circulated in fragmented form since shortly after the show was performed, but in 2022, in preparation for the band’s 60th anniversary, the Stones have finally released tracks from both shows in their entirety. The release, simply titled El Mocambo ’77, confirms what was thought of all this years: the El Mocambo shows are among the greatest and most important Rolling Stones shows of all time.

From end to end, this is the Stones at their best: raw, loud, gritty, snarling, dangerous, teetering on the edge of chaos. Sloppy, but ‘good sloppy’: the entire band is in a groove and playing for their lives, especially Keith who got his shit together for these shows and gave some of the most searing guitar work of his entire career. He owns this entire show and crushes every dirty lick, riff and rhythm that comes his way. Mick is at his lascivious best, Wyman and Watts hold down the fort as forcefully as they always have, and Wood fully comes into his own, perfecting his signature ‘weaving’ with Keith and laying down some smoking hot axe work of his own on tracks like “Crackin’ Up” and “Worried About You.”

There isn’t a weak performance of any of the 23 songs, but some of the highlights include arresting renditions of Stones classics “Honky Tonk Women” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” a pulsating “Hot Stuff,” and the forgotten gem “Dance Little Sister” that barely stays on track but manages to be one of the most exciting Stones live cuts of all time. The blues cuts, particularly “Worried Life Blues” and “Mannish Boy,” show why the Stones are the only white boys who can do black blues music justice, injecting their own personalities into music while maintaining reverence for their progenitors.

The sound quality brings out the revelatory quality of the full performances out further, not losing any nuances or making the music sound too clean for its own good. Everything you’re meant to hear jumps right out of the speakers.

Coupled with beautiful packaging that delves deep into the shows’ legacy, El Mocambo ’77 sits comfortably up there with Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out and Brussels Affair ’73 as one of their best live releases, a forceful reminder of when they were far more than rock’s most entertaining nostalgia act and truly the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.

NOSTALGIA CORNER: DECONSTRUCTING “DECONSTRUCTING HARRY”: AN APPRECIATION OF WOODY ALLEN’S TWISTED LOVE LETTER TO THE CREATIVE PROCESS

About five months ago, I decided to watch Annie Hall for the first time. It was also the first time I had ever watched a Woody Allen movie. I expected to appreciate it, but what I did not expect was that I took an instant liking to Allen’s humor, as well as the way he portrayed relationships, anxiety and existential dread.

Fast forward to mid-April, and I have watched over 20 Allen films. These include bullet proof classics such as Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Sleeper, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and Midnight In Paris. The one film that outclassed them all for me, however, was Deconstructing Harry.

By 1997, Woody Allen was five years removed from his split with Mia Farrow and its accompanying controversy. His last several films boasted some of the biggest names he has ever worked with and showed that the respect and admiration he had achieved throughout his career had not been tarnished by his personal tribulations. 

Consciously or unconsciously, Woody’s films in the aftermath of his legal issues were decidedly lighter affairs: Bullets and Aphrodite were madcap farces with reasonably happy endings, and Everyone Says I Love You was his first and only musical, with a bittersweet but ultimately hopeful conclusion. Woody has never admitted it, but one could deduce that the man was possibly trying to soften his image with the public. The films are largely lacking in the darker elements of his humor, such as his bracing existential critiques and caustic criticisms of religion and politics, with the exception of a few thinly veiled barbs. 

For Deconstructing Harry, Woody returned to what he did best and unleashed the ugliest, most unpleasant and unsympathetic version of himself in the form of Harry Block, a successful writer who uses those closest to him as inspiration for his sordid, often deeply personal tales of humans at their worst.

A philandering, pill popping, thrice divorced wreck of a human, Block is unable to write for the first time in his life. He gets ideas but finds himself unable to put them onto the page. His son, the one part of his life where he’s actually put an effort into being a source of good, is forbidden from him by his second ex-wife, who also happens to be his former therapist. His mistress, who also happens to be his ex-sister-in-law, is driven nearly to suicide when his book destroys her marriage and relationship with her sister. The woman he really loves has decided to marry a close friend that he introduced her to. 

In the midst of all this, Block should have a silver lining to look forward to: the college that once kicked him out has now decided to honor him as an esteemed alumni due to his success. This small bit of validation, however, feels hollow to him, as he feels he has no one to celebrate it with. Through a series of mishaps, chance encounters, and an impromptu kidnapping, Block manages to drum up enough enthusiasm within himself to make the trek out to the event, and along the way he discovers some significant and unpleasant truths about himself he needs to confront in order to continue his success.

As previously mentioned, Deconstructing Harry can be seen as a return to form for Allen when looked at within the entire trajectory of his career; it can also be seen as a farewell the Woody Allen we all know and love. As one astute Redditor pointed out, Deconstructing Harry may well be the last true classic Woody movie: like Manhattan, Annie Hall, and Hannah and Her Sisters, the film deals with a struggling creative type trying to make sense of failed professional and personal setbacks set agains the backdrop of New York. The themes of Judaism, existential dread, and finding a sense of purpose in a world that seems to not to provide one are all there. The only film post-Harry that revisits any of these themes is Midnight in Paris, and as good as that film is, it does not approach them with the depth or rawness that Deconstructing Harry does.

The loneliness of the creative process and being a struggling artist is personified by Harry Block; he mentions more than once that he cannot function in reality, but instead must rely on his art to get by in life. Writers are often told to write what they know, but Harry is the ‘worst case scenario’ of this advice, as his well of inspiration winds up alienating him from everyone he has attempted to care about. 

Allen gives us a direct line to Block’s imagination, as the film alternates between Block’s real life and his visualizations of what he would like his stories to become or have become; one particularly funny and profound one features Robin Williams as Mel, an actor who one day literally goes ‘out of focus.’ Williams spend the entirety of his screentime blurry and distorted, until his wife and children are forced to get glasses so that he can be seen more clearly. Block’s therapist suggests that this mirrors Block’s own selfishness, as he expects the world to adapt to him rather than he change for the better.

Block’s characters, as previously stated, are based on his real life experiences; more specifically, they are vindicative, vengeful avatars of people in his own life he has come to view with contempt; Ken (Richard Benjamin) and Grace (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) are in-laws sleeping around the side, much like Harry and his third wife’s sister Lucy (Judy Davis). Paul (Stanley Tucci) marries Helen (Demi Moore), his former therapist, which is the exact same trajectory as his relationship with his second wife, Joan (Kirstie Alley). Helen and Paul’s relationship falls apart when Helen embraces her Jewish heritage to a fanatical degree, similar to the spiritually inept Harry’s falling out with his estranged sister (Caroline Aaron). His father, who resented him when his wife died giving birth to him, is depicted once as a Jewish stereotype with a groteseque secret. His former best friend Larry (Billy Crystal) is now the Devil in Harry’s mind, because he is marrying Faye (Elisabeth Shue), a woman he loved but pushed away with his rigidity and neuroses.

Harry finds companionship in his hypochondriac friend Richard (Bob Balaban), his son Hilly (Eric Lloyd), and a hooker named Cookie (Hazelle Williams in the first major African American role in any Allen film), all of whom accompany him to his honoring ceremony. For a brief moment, Harry is content: he has friends, he has a sense of companionship, he feels loved and appreciated despite his flaws. As the journey goes on, however, his characters leap off the pages and confront him about his many transgressions and how they’ve hurt and alienated those who once truly cared for him. By the end of the film, Harry’s epiphany leads to him to realize he has but one true friend that he hasn’t alienated: his art; in order to maintain that relationship, however, Harry must come to terms with his failures and internalized resentments, so that the proverbial block on his creativity can be lifted.

Deconstructing Harry may or not be Woody Allen’s best film for me; it’s tough for me to make an argument for it being better than Crimes and Misdemeanors or Annie Hall. It is, however, my favorite of Allen’s films, for it speaks to the struggling artist that lives within all of us. It portrays the need to create and leave a legacy through art in painfully probing, uncomfortably accurate details. Its commentary is all at once brutal, sublime, and uplifting.

It’s also really, really fucking funny.

MOVIE REVIEW: THE BATMAN

There are arguably three certainties in life: death, taxes, and a new take on Batman every five to seven years, usually accompanied by the promise that it will be the darkest or grittiest take on the character yet. This has been done to varying degrees of success; some succeed quite admirably (Keaton, Bale), some suffer under the weight of their ambitions (Affleck), and some just flat out fail (Kilmer, Clooney). 

The latest effort, Matt Reeves’ The Batman, stars Robert Pattinson as the Caped Crusader; like all Batman films, it came riding on a wave of hype. Memes deemed Pattinson the ’emo Batman,” mostly due his gloomy disposition and a trailer accompanied by maybe the darkest and most depressing of all Nirvana songs (“Something in the Way”). Some even revived old Twilight jokes about ‘Batman finally being played by an actual bat,” because internet trolls are known for originality. Pattinson was gradually joined by Paul Dano, Zoe Kravitz, Colin Farrell, Andy Serkis, Geoffrey Wright, Peter Sarsgaard, and John Turtorro, a worthy selection of actors that created further buzz and speculation.

The Batman begins with the same basic plot as all Batman films: Gotham is being hopelessly ravaged by crime and poverty, most of the cops and politicians are corrupt, and the only hope for respite comes in the form of a masked vigilante who stalks criminals dressed as a giant bat. On Halloween night, the mayor of the city is brutally murdered while his family is out trick-or-treating, leading to a series of sadistic killings along with a series clues that lead to the victims exposure of their involvement in the seedy underbelly of the Gotham crime world. In addition to these brain teasing calling cards, the killer is obsessed with the Batman, leaving him clues in the form of greeting cards as to who his next victim is going to be and why.

In addition to the killer wreaking havoc in a city already consumed by it, the Dark Knight also has contend with a fellow vigilante who has adopted a cat as her avatar of choice, a police department with only one officer he can trust, and his alter ego Bruce Wayne’s own personal baggage. 

With a sprawling runtime of three hours, The Batman tries to pack in quite a bit; while the film is often thrilling and intricate, it is almost as consistently bloated and plodding. The pacing often slows to a halt when Pattinson takes of the cape and cowl, with his voice overs presented as Wayne’s journal entry coming off as desperate attempt to modernize the characters. It throws in one too any double-crosses and plot twists for its own good, as if it’s trying way too hard to be clever and surprising.

The performances are mostly solid; as Batman, Pattinson is outstanding. Virtually flawless. Every time he is in costume, the film lives up to its potential. The voice, the look, the physicality, and the intense presence are all top notch. This is a Batman to be feared. One strength of the film is the focus on Batman as a detective, which plays out as he meticulously deciphers the Riddler’s sinister clues. His Bruce Wayne isn’t nearly as effective, but that’s a fault in the writing rather than Pattinson’s acting; overall, he knows it out of the park.

As a pre-Catwoman Selina Kyle, Kravitz oozes sensuality and charisma, while giving the character more depth and pathos than in previous incarnations; Michelle Pfeiffer is still the gold standard for onscreen Catwomen for me, but Kravitz is an easy second. Her chemistry with Pattinson is off the charts. Andy Serkis and Geoffrey Wright play Batman’s most trusted cohorts, butler / surrogate father Alfred and noble cop James Gordon, with a dignified subtlety that was missing in previous portrayals. Turtorro acquits himself well enough in what is essentially a standard mob boss role, but Colin Farrell really triumphs as The Penguin: he overcomes the novelty of being hidden under mounds of prosthetics and gives a truly affecting presence, turning the character into a mildly tragic figure who is ostracized for his demeanor and seen as a sort of bottom feeder in the Gotham crime syndicate.

The weak link is Paul Dano’s Riddler; while he is definitely the most brutal and intense villain to date, his actual performance leaves much to be desired. He spends most of the film wrapped in a gimp suit breathing heavily; while there are some interesting aspects to the characters (the ciphers he leaves at crime scenes are some of the best examples of Bats using the aforementioned detective skills), he ultimately comes across as a cliched of better fleshed out villains such as Hannibal Lecter, John Doe from Se7en, and Ledger’s Joker. His motive is barely evident, basically a carbon copy of Ledger in The Dark Knight in that he just wants to cause chaos in an already chaotic situation. There’s a loose connection to Bruce Wayne that is hinted at but never fully expounded upon, and Dano’s acting once he emerges from the costume is truly, painfully over the top and cringe-y.

Visually the film is stunning, probably the most realistic and accurate portrayal of Gotham City to date. The fight scenes are extremely well choreographed, and the score by Michael Giacchino is magnificently haunting and is as perfect for Pattinson as Danny Elfman’s was for Keaton.

The Batman is not perfect, but it ranks in the upper echelon of Batman films, anchored largely by a spectacular performance from Robert Pattinson. Its vision isn’t always fully realized, but it shows promise for future installments.

KEITH RICHARDS AT 78: HIS 10 GREATEST RIFFS

As of yesterday, Keith Richards is 78 years old; judging by his iron will and stupefying ability to withstand heroine addiction, a cracked skull, and a myriad of other instances that would kill a normal person, he will likely have 78 more when all is said and done.

More-so than his infamous lifestyle, the legendary Rolling Stones guitarist is defined by his body of work: known as the Human Riff, Keith’s ability to kickstart a song into the stratosphere with his slashing, ringing chords coupled with his unique sense of timing and melody make him one of the most instantly recognizable musicians of all time. Within seconds, whether it’s a Stones song or a cameo for another artist, you know when Keith Richards is playing, and you know it’s gonna be good.

In honor of Keith’s latest revolution around the sun, we count down arguably his 10 best, most recognizable and inimitable intro riffs on some of the Rolling Stones’ most enduring classic.

Pour yourself some Jack, light up a Marlboro and immerse yourself in the gritty aural magic of Keith Richards.

10. 19th Nervous Breakdown (single, 1966)

The ‘bull in a china shop’ barrage of chords that start off this classic 1966 single perfectly sets up the song’s humorously frantic tone. Coupled with Mick’s condescending ‘told ya so’ lyrics delivered at a rapid fire pace, it’s one of the best marriages of the Glimmer Twins’ strengths in terms of getting the feel for a song just exactly perfect.

9. Beast Of Burden (Some Girls, 1978)

The band’s toughest ballad gets much of its muscle from Keith’s riff, which sounds at once defiant, tender, and melancholy. Mick’s vocal delivery is full of cocksure attitude; it’s Keith’s playing that gives “Beast of Burden” its weather beaten heart and exposes the narrator’s vulnerability that Mick is trying to conceal with his bravado.

8. Rocks Off (Exile On Main Street, 1972)

The opener for the band’s sprawling masterpiece leaps out of the speakers like a panther courtesy of Keith’s clarion riff. Like “19th Nervous Breakdown,” Keith’s role is to set up a frantic, anxiety ridden tale of excess, paranoia, and mental decay, and he succeeds again with an edgier, darker approach that fits the squalid, wasted atmosphere of Exile on Main Street like a glove.

7. Midnight Rambler (Let It Bleed, 1969)

The Stones’ most exciting live tune and the closest they ever came to a proper rock opera, Keith’s lurching, menacing riff is him at his most feral and vicious. For a song that’s about a serial murderer and rapist, you could not ask for a more appropriately demented, vicious sound. To this day, he still crunches it out with the same vigor.

6. Start Me Up (Tattoo You, 1981)

The riff that launched a thousand sporting events, and roughly a similar amount of Stones concerts. “Start Me Up” is arguably the last truly deathless Stones anthem, and it’s all thanks to Keith’s three chord call to arms slamming against Charlie Watts’ insistent, pulsating groove. They never sounded as vital again.

5. Honky Tonk Women (single, 1969)

There are few more iconic Stones images then Keith center stage, belting out the signature open G chords of “Honky Tonk Women” with just one hand, cigarette firmly between his lips. While it’s not the official start of the song (more cowbell!), it’s the game changing moment when the song gets its wings and becomes one of the most enjoyably ribald romps of the band’s catalog.

4. Can’t You Hear Me Knocking (Sticky Fingers, 1971)

Keith crunches out the serrated riff on this highlight from the Stones’ best album like he’s twisting someone’s head in a vise. While many remember the song more fondly for the Bobby Keys / Mick Taylor led jam in the second half of the song, the first half may be the best two and a half minutes of the band’s career: they never sounded punchier or tighter as the unit, and it’s Keith who gallantly leads them into such a gritty sweet spot.

3. Jumpin’ Jack Flash (single, 1966)

For many, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” heralded the start of the band’s peak years of 1968-72; it’s hard to argue against it. Now experimenting with unorthodox tunings and recording techniques, Keith created a sound on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” that was primal, urgent and completely inimitable. It’s a furious blend of the band’s blues roots, the burgeoning psychedelic scene, and their own slashing, swinging signature sound. Everyone on this track hit a new level artistically, but it was Keith who kicked the door down for the rest to follow suit.

2. Gimme Shelter (Let It Bleed, 1969)

I almost put this one at number one on the basis that “Gimme Shelter” is my favorite song of all time. Period. By anyone. I relented in the face of objectivity, but no Stones song, or any for that matter, will have as lasting an impact on me. Keith’s opening riff is the aural equivalent of being circled by sharks or slowly choked out by a large snake: it’s sinister, repetitive and takes its time before going right for the throat when you least expect it. It sets up the song’s apocalyptic fury perfectly, sweeping you right up like the storm in the opening line. Every subsequent moment of “Gimme Shelter” is a response to Keith’s dynamic intro, bringing out the best in each band member as they do their best to match the swagger and intensity he immediately brings to the table.

1. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (Out of Our Heads, 1965)

Could it have been anything else? Keith literally dreamed up the riff, fell asleep and woke up with it fully formed. The fuzzy, buzzing riff is the sound of rock and roll: rebellious, dangerous, sexy and grooving. A call to action. “Satisfaction” is the Stones’ and possibly rock and roll’s equivalent of the national anthem. It’s their most enduring classic, and it’s all thanks to the man rightfully called the Human Riff.

MOVIE REVIEW: HOUSE OF GUCCI

With its wall to wall cast of Oscar nominees (including four winners), eye popping promotional materials and an enticingly lurid true story behind it, Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci has been one of the most hotly anticipated films of 2021.

The film stars Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani, a secretary at her father’s trucking company in Italy in the late 1970s’. A chance meeting with Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) at a mutual friend’s party leads to a budding romance that introduces her to a world of glamour, wealth and intrigue she never could imagine. Maurizio is reluctant to get by solely on his famous last name,  is studying to become a lawyer; furthermore, his father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons, rocking the hell out of a Clark Gable mustache) does not approve of Patrizia’s comparatively meager upbringing and decides to cut both off from the vast Gucci fortune.

Maurizio and Patrizia get married and settle down into a quiet, comfortable life free from the pressures of being part of the Gucci empire; this changes when Maurizio’s uncle, Aldo (Al Pacino) invites them to his birthday party in an effort to groom him as his eventual successor; Aldo’s own son, Paolo (Jared Leto), is seen as an “idiot” incapable of running the business properly, someone lacking in both fashion and common sense. This is the first sign of tension between Maurizio and Patrizia and the rest of the family.

Upon returning to his family business, Maurizio takes Patrizia to New York where both are seduced by the family’s growing wealth and power, and as a result become disgusted with Aldo’s seeming complacency in growing and modernizing the brand. This leads to a series of betrayals that change the dynamic of both the business and the family, and ultimately leads to dire (and deadly) consequences for Maurizio and Patrizia’s marriage.

Like the clothing brand itself, House of Gucci is sleek, stylish, flamboyant and full of intrigue. Scott and the cast clearly understood the assignment at hand; a story built around such eccentric situations and characters is bound to have moments of camp, but make no mistake: House of Gucci is a seriously well made film that makes the most of its pedigree.

This is largely due to the acting, particularly Gaga’s performance; as Reggiani, she is dynamic, enchanting, intimidating and powerful. Her transition from harmless secretary living out the ultimate Cinderella story to a shrewd, malicious femme fatale is wholly believable and worthy of whatever major awards may come her way. She simply commands the screen in a way that wholly betrays the notion that this is only her second major leading role in a motion picture.

Driver, questionable accent aside, is similarly affecting in his role as the ill fated Maurizio, having a palpable chemistry with his leading lady that crackles with energy. Pacino and Irons, two venerable elder titans, make the most of their comparatively meager supporting roles. Only Leto truly whiffs, as his take on dimwitted black sheep Paolo feels more like a Super Mario audition than a serious, nuanced take on an actual person; everything from his accent to his makeup to his clothes feels hammy and forced. (Salma Hayek is unfortunately wasted in her role as Reggiani’s psychic friend and eventual coconspirator, Pina Auriemma).

Visually, the film is stunning; Scott has not lost his place as one of cinema’s most unique auteurs. His shots of the film’s various exotic locales in Italy are sublime, and his ability to film in a way that makes you feel like you were in on the action, feeling the emotions and tensions of the characters as he did in Alien and Blade Runner, has not dissipated.

House of Gucci is enthralling, evocative, over the top and ruthlessly entertaining; it moves along at a great place thanks to its great acting and intriguing, if slightly convoluted storyline. People will no doubt quibble over its accuracy, not least of all the Gucci family themselves; regardless, the film succeeds just as a pure piece of escapism and artistry, no doubt aided by its more than worthy pedigree.

REVIEW: VOYAGE – ABBA

ABBA: Voyage Album Review | Pitchfork
Voyage is ABBA’s first album in 40 years.

Barring The Beatles when all were living, there has been go greater holdout on the ‘bands reuniting’ front than Swedish pop juggernauts ABBA…

…that is until now.

The quartet of Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad have reunited 40 years after their last album, and in the wake of an ongoing renaissance of their music largely spurred by the smash musical Mamma Mia and its film adaptations.

ABBA broke up when its respective marriages (Agnetha to Bjorn, Ani-Frid to Benny) ended in rapid succession, as good as any reason to breakup a band. At the time of their breakup, ABBA was a worldwide phenomenon with over twenty hit singles to their name, including ubiquitous classics such as “Waterloo,” “Dancing Queen,” and “Take a Chance on Me.” While they were never critics’ darlings (some have called them the ultimate ‘guilty pleasure’ band), their fanbase was rabid and devoted, and heartbroken by the news.

In the ensuing years, ABBA’s popularity and success has only grown; 1992’s ABBA Gold compilation become their best selling release some 10 years after they split. In 1999, British playwright Catherine Johnson partnered with Ulvaeus and Andersson for Mamma Mia!, a musical consisting entirely of ABBA classics as the soundtrack to a convoluted but charming romantic comedy plot. The play was a raging success throughout the world, and firmly reignited the ABBA renaissance with no end in the sight; the success of Mamma Mia spawned not one, but two film adaptations that were met with similar plaudits.

Despite their enduring appeal, a reunion of the band seemed about as likely as a JFK Jr. sighting in Dallas this year; they have turned down as much as one billion dollars to reunite in any capacity. However, an informal private reunion in 2016 led to something of a 180 of their previous attitudes, and the band recorded two songs for charity in 2018. They also took part in the creation of a digital avatar project, which was set to tour shortly before the pandemic of 2020.

ABBA turned out to also be working on a new full album, which has now come into fruition in the form of Voyage; after 40 years away, there was some trepidation from fans as to whether the band could live up to the hype of such an event. Would a new ABBA album be worth it after all this time.

Well, happily, the answer is yes; for the most part, Voyage is deeply enjoyable and charming, just like the best ABBA hits; the dizzying power pop melodies and super crisp production that defined their biggest songs are fully present and sound just as fresh today as they did in 1977. The voices of both female lead singers have held up incredibly well, with nary a difference in tone or power compared to their heyday.

The album as a whole is rather top heavy, its best tracks coming within the first half; this includes the singles “I Still Have Faith in You,” “Don’t Shut Me Down,” and “Just a Notion.”  These songs have all the grand hallmarks of classic ABBA, with irresistible hooks and dizzying harmonies. “Just a Notion” especially feels reminiscent of the band’s earliest hits, with a rolling piano providing Fältskog and Lyngstad the perfect vehicle for their signature vocal blending to hit its sweet spot. “When You Danced with Me” also adds to a very strong first half, recalling the lilting classic “Our Last Summer.” “Little Things” is the one weaker song here, although its message is charming.

The second half of the album is more forgettable, as the band tries a bit too hard to incorporate a more modern sound that falls flat, particularly on the cringe-y “Keep an Eye on Dan,” as well as the sappy and cloying “I Can Be that Woman.” That said, the whimsical “Bumblebee” and the chugging power pop of “No Doubt About It” are solid enough to keep the record afloat, and the closing “Ode to Freedom” is quite haunting and fitting coda should this be the last thing ABBA ever record.

Even if it’s for one album, it feels oddly comforting to have ABBA back; in a world constantly shrouded in uncertainty and darkness, ABBA’s aggressively shiny, shimmering sonic milieu provides a most welcome aural respite. Voyage isn’t a classic, but it’s a solidly enjoyable effort, and makes a strong case for ABBA’s enduring appeal.

REMEMBERING CHARLIE WATTS, THE ULTIMATE ANTI-ROCK STAR

Sophistication is not a word normally associated with rock stars, and certainly not the immortal decadence associated with the Rolling Stones. And yet, with the passing of Charlie Watts this past Tuesday, the word has popped up multiple times to describe his playing as well as his quiet, anti-rock star demeanor.

Charlie was the eye of the crossfire hurricane that is the Rolling Stones sound, his steady backbeat providing calm in the midst of Keith Richards’ wild guitar riffs and Mick Jagger’s sneering, seedy vocals. A jazz musician at heart who initially eschewed the blues influences of his bandmates, Charlie gave the Stones sound a big band swing that defined the seductive grooves of classics like “Honky Tonk Women” and “Beast of Burden.” Richards’ deathless “Satisfaction” intro would not sound nearly as muscular with Charlie’s insistent ‘four on the floor’ backbeat hammering away underneath it, punctuating the aggression at the heart of the song. 

In the band’s live shows, Charlie was the secret weapon: whenever Keith Richards got lost in a solo or Jagger mistimed a vocal cue, you could always count on Watts to right the ship and get the band back on track. Richards would play through him, using him as the guide post to set up the tempos and grooves of songs to get the right feeling going on any given night. On the band’s live epic, “Midnight Rambler,” the entire band would have their eyes locked on him the whole time as he effortlessly navigated them through the song’s many dynamics and tempo shifts. Watts played with the Stones until he was 78 years old, and his final tour in 2019 had him sounding as brisk, sharp and punchy as ever, and still swinging.

The parallels between Watts’ playing and his personality have often been discussed; in both he was unassuming, never wont to take center stage, but always just an emphatic enough presence to make him indispensable to the Stones’ legacy. In interviews and promotional video, Charlie had a dryly comedic role, often rolling his eyes in mock embarrassment at Jagger’s endless preening and prancing. He always seemed genuinely bemused that he was apart of the biggest rock and roll band on the planet, and it was always charming and endearing how humbly he approached fame. 

Not that he didn’t indulge: Watts collected Arabian horses and vintage sports car, the latter his most jarring excess considering he never drove. He was perhaps second to David Bowie as rock’s most immaculate sartorial figure, decked to the nines in gorgeous Saville Row tailored suits and colorful shirts. He also briefly took over for Richards as the band’s resident heroine addict in the mid-1980s’, a period that gave birth to one of the most famous backstage Stone moments: an enraged Jagger called Watts down for a rehearsal and angrily referred to him as my drummer. Watts, who by own his admission was drunk, heartily decked the likely unsuspecting frontman and told him “you’re my fucking singer.” Watts wasn’t wrong; without him, Jagger would not have a beat or shuffle for him to unleash his spastic yet effective running and vamping upon the world for the last six decades.

Watts quit heroine cold turkey when he realized the effect it was having on his marriage to his wife Shirley, who he stayed with for 57 years. When Bill Wyman was bragging about having sex  with 2,000 women in 1965 alone and Jagger was having teenyboppers throw themselves at him 24/7, Watts had a steadfast, happy family life until the day he died. In music and life, Watts has been described as a rock: reliable, still, seemingly indistinct, but if you were to remove it from the landscape, it would seem less vibrant and unique.

Without Charlie in the band’s aural landscape, the Rolling Stones lose their swing and punch. They had a replacement inked for Charlie before he passed, as he had pulled out of their upcoming U.S. tour three weeks before his death under more pretenses (temporary illness, ‘returning for the 60th anniversary next year’); it’s Steve Jordan, Richards’ drummer from his side project the X-Pensive Winos. Jordan is an excellent drummer, and it’s crucial that they brought in someone who has chemistry with Keith Richards, who once said ‘no Charlie, no Stones’ when Watts battled cancer in 2004. Jordan, however, will not be Charlie. The history won’t be there,  nor the natural chemistry that developed out of nearly 60 years of playing together. It’s going to be exciting to see the Stones face a true challenge again, as opposed to coasting on the spectacle and hype of their longevity. It may be good, great even, but it won’t be as good as having Charles Robert Watts there.

REVIEW: FOLKLORE – TAYLOR SWIFT

Review: Taylor Swift 'Folklore' might be the best album of her ...

Bob Dylan went electric, The Beatles discovered psychedelia, and now Taylor Swift seems to be transitioning into indie rock goddess….ok, these are all ludicrous comparisons and exaggerations, but the pop icon’s sudden shift into uncharted territory could well be the start of a new, exciting chapter in her already 15 year career.

In actuality, Swift’s career has always been about gradual growth and change, as she transitioned from country sensation to mainstream pop goddess, all the while keeping the core tenets of her artistry intact; her introspective, often biting and clever takes on her personal relationships along with more nuanced statements on her autonomy and independence. 

The indie folk genre that has been pioneered by Bon Iver, The National and numerous other acts over the last 20 years is in reality a perfect nesting ground for Swift’s brand of soul probing story-songs, and thanks to genre mainstays Jack Antanoff producing and The National’s Adam Dressen co-writing 11 of the album’s 16 songs, she sounds completely comfortable and authentic in these previously uncharted waters.

Those looking for the next “Shake It Off” or “You Need to Calm Down” can stick with the mega-selling albums they came from; the slick beats and catchy hooks are replaced with stripped down arrangements, crisp piano and guitar, the occasional dreary organ, and Swift’s sultry, often ethereal vocals. Her voice barely rises above a whisper on many tracks, giving them an intimate, haunting presence that recalls Lana Del Rey and even Joni Mitchell.

Each one of folklore’s 16 tracks ranges from very good to absolutely excellent, with some of the best songs in her career in the second half of the album; it’s tough to narrow it down to a few highlights, but the dreamy “mirrorball,” the poignant and haunting “this is me trying,” the mournful “illicit affairs” and the closing “hoax” stand among Swift’s very best material ever. Other standouts include the bouncy, wistful “the last great american dynasty” and “my tears ricochet,” the latter maybe Swift’s darkest song to date and largely interpreted as a veiled kiss-off to her former record label, Big Machine.

In a year that has seen incredible new music by everyone from Bob Dylan to Phish to Dua Lipa to Fiona Apple to Lady Gaga, folklore holds its own as a bold and powerful artistic statement with the quality to match its ambitions. With this record, Swift’s next move just became that much more exciting and unpredictable.

GRADE: A

REVIEW: “SIGMA OASIS” – PHISH

Sigma Oasis_Phish

With the immediate fate of concerts, festivals and other music related gatherings in limbo, America’s second favorite jam band and favorite live band, Phish, have bestowed something of a consellation present in the form of its latest album, Sigma Oasis.

Sigma Oasis marks a milestone of sorts for the band, as it’s the first studio album to successfully conjure the alchemy that results in their most legendary and transformative jams live jamming; the lengthy excursions in “Everything’s Right,” “Steam,” and the haunting closer “Thread” are as good as any the band has laid down onstage, filled with dynamic twists and turns and endless exploration, as well as their typically fantastic musicianship. 

Lyrically and musically, Phish are more mature and thoughtful as ever; on songs like the whimsical title tracks, the haunting “Leaves,” and the truly sublime “Shade,” Anastastio displays a depth and maturity to his lyricism that has only been shown in flashes previously (most notably on his solo record, Ghosts of the Forest), while the vocal melodies and harmonies on “Mercury” rank among the most clever in Phish’s catalog. His playing continues to be as sharp, fluid and creative as ever, with his solo on “Leaves” standing out in particular for its emotional colouring that recalls the depth his forefather Jerry Garcia would inject into his most soulful “Stella Blue” outros.

The rest of the band sounds terrific too, with some of their most delicate and nuanced playing to date; Page McConnell really struck me as the album’s other MVP, especially on “Everything’s Right,” where his intricate and thoughtful keyboard work is the motivating force towards leading the song into deeper waters. The rhythm section of John Fishman and Mike Gordon are air tight throughout, giving each song the proper foundation and standing out especially on the heady funk breakdowns in “Steam” and “Thread.”

Sigma Oasis is a true gift of an album, not just for Phish’s rabid fanbase but for 2020 as a whole; its a true ‘feel good’ record that, coupled with Phish’s generally relaxed and sunny musical disposition, allows you to drift away from the chaos of the current climate, if only for an hour and six minutes.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: “FUTURE NOSTALGIA” – DUA LIPA

Dua Lipa’s latest release, the cleverly titled Future Nostalgia, came on a wave of hype, as the Grammy winning English pop sensation has been responsible for some of the most irresistible and inescapable hits of the last three years. Predictably, Future Nostalgia not only lives up to its hype, but actually exceeds it.

On Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa asserts her bold, assertive and unapologetic femininity in a way in a series of tough, punchy dance floor anthems bristling with clever, often biting and hilarious lyrics and complemented by dazzling production values. From the opening infectious title track, Lipa immediately establishes herself as a dominant force to be reckoned, as well as clarifies the intent behind the album’s contradictory title:

You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game

Like modern architecture, John Lautner coming your way

I know you like this beat ’cause Jeff been doing the damn thing

You wanna turn it up loud, future nostalgia is the name.” *

If her goal was to create an album of songs that are indisputably rotted in modern times while incorporating iconic sounds and production values of the 1970s’, ’80s, and beyond, she achieves it, especially on tracks such as the dreamy “Levitating” and the lush “Love Again,” both of which sail on a caressing wave of 70s’ R&B tapestries, with the latter also incorporating the more pointed New Jack Swing beats of the early 1990s’.  

Specific artists are also recalled, either consciously or consciously; the fantric, pulsating beat of “Physical” recalls the similarly suggestive pacing of ABBA’s edgy “Lay All Your On Me” and Madonna’s early classic “Burning Up,” among others. The appropriately hypnotic “Hallucinate” pays homage to The Fame era Gaga without sounding derivative, while the album’s best song, the irresistbly raunchy “Good in Bed” combines the brassiness of TLC, the lyrical bite of Lily Allen (as pointed out by other critics) and the raw, upfront sexual bravado of Lizzo, as well as echoing Prince’s similarly graphic and spiritually gratifying portrayal of sex during the days of Dirty Mind.

The album’s closer, “Boys Will Be Boys,” is a blunt condemnation against toxic masculinity as well as the idea that it’s on women to protect themselves rather than on men to behave appropriately; it’s not the first song tackle these subjects, but the song’s lyrics are laced with a formidable combo of defiance, resignation, and even humor. Its serious pedigree may seem jarring, but in reality it’s a culmination of all the non-apologetic femininity Lipa presents throughout the album, and establishes her as an artist capable of serious depth and thought and offers a great conclusion.

With its smartly constructed songs, soaring and diverse production values, and Lipa’s charismatic vocals and personality, it’s going to be very tough to top Future Nostalgia as one of, if not the, best albums of 2020. Be on the lookout come Grammys time, whenever that will be.

* Lyrics credited to