Only Solitaire: G. Starostin's Record Reviews, Reloaded C Intro Notes Beyond this page the reader will find a bunch of superficial reviews of pop music records, spanning the chronological distance of about a century's worth of recording and of the tastes and judgements of one individual. If there is a primary purpose to all this writing, it can be described as inescapable egotistic self-assertion over one's record collection, something that each and every individual with a record collection, a computer, and an ability to string together a few coherent lines of text is entitled to as long as «freedom of speech» has any meaning.
Each review tends to consist of a small bundle of facts about the recording (for larger bundles of facts, please refer to specialized literature on the artist), a self-honest attempt to describe the music in accessible and meaningful terms, and a few subjective, but systematic, opinions on the overall value of the record. No «ratings» are given — rating the value of any record on a numeric scale is fun, but not necessarily harmless fun — except for an overall «thumbs up» or «thumbs down» decision, triggered by considerations of direct, irrational likeability (the «heart» reaction) or by more rational ideas of «artistic importance», «relevance», and «innovation» (the «brain» reaction). A record may be liked, but not respected, or vice versa. However, it does not necessarily need to be both liked and respected to get the thumbs in an upward position.
Reviews are separated in seven chronological categories — artists of the pre-Beatles era covering everything (mostly blues, R&B, and rockabilly) from the 1920s, then six more sections covering relatively distinct chronological periods. Within these, artists are slowly reviewed in alphabetic order. At the current rate, I may never get beyond the letter C, but I do not really care. This is not science, and getting anywhere is not the main purpose.
Potential readers are encouraged to browse through these texts, and, perhaps, even to follow certain recommendations (if they have not yet heard the record in question), provided they have at least a few points of intersection with the opinions offered below. If, on the other hand, it turns out that we come from different planets, there is no reason whatsoever for you, dear reader, to waste your time on what you will unquestionably label as «drivel». There may be other, better reviews waiting for you out there, or, perhaps, you would like to follow your own uninfluenced destiny in this matter. By all means, then, I welcome you to do just that.
Contra my past experience with the HTML version of Only Solitaire, I do not add any more reader comments to my reviews. However, I welcome additional or dissenting opinions on the forum, and I promise to correct any factual, grammatical, or stylistical mistakes and/or typos that you spot (fairly easy to do when it is all in a single file).
Last note: for fun and additional entertainment value, some of the songs in the track list preceding the review are hyperlinked to Youtube videos — but only in cases where there really is an accompanying video clip or live performance that I think is worth one's love (or hate), not when it's just an audio track over a bunch of boring photos. Enjoy — or don't enjoy.
The «Two Cents» Page.
For those who have no need of lengthy reviews, here's just one or two quick thoughts and summaries on all the artists I have covered. Do not forget, though, that even Britney Spears cannot be fully described in two sentences, so these should by no means be taken for final and definitive judgements. Build or burn at your own risk.
Note: ☺ Smileys indicate artists well worth getting acquainted with; ○ blank circles are for okay ones who may have reasons to own fan bases but do not rise beyond "decent"; ☻ anti-smileys are just what they are — artists who are only here because of public notoriety and (perhaps) limited historical significance, but they can also be great fodder to make fun of. I'm sure they don't mind — they're supposed to be cool, understanding people in any case.
1920-1960 ☺Carl Perkins: The man behind ʽBlue Suede Shoesʼ and ʽHoney Don'tʼ needs little introduction... or does he? Although he is always listed in every list of great early rockers, he'd also always kept a low profile, and his lack of «flash» has always made him lurk somewhere in the background, way behind the huge shoulders of Elvis. But this also makes him a personal favorite for those music lovers who despise «flash», and prefer quiet, subtle charisma instead. Anyway, no collection is complete without a set of great Carl Perkins guitar licks — the man was perhaps the perfect epitome of «rock'n'roll as country-western's naughty kid» — and there might even be a reason to look into Carl's career beyond the obligatory mid-1950s hits: yes, it's been spotty, but not without its hidden charms, such as, e. g., On Top from 1969, where he actually tried to modernize his style with surprisingly fun results.
☺Charley Patton: A figure of almost as legendary status as Robert Johnson, but a little less familiar to the general public because, unlike Johnson, Patton has not been nearly as influential on the American and British electric blues and blues-rock scene — at least, not as immediately influential, what with his more archaic and «wild» style of Delta blues guitar playing, and his deep growling vocals being harder to authentically imitate and all. Additionally, most of his recordings suffer from really terrible sound quality. But don't let that stop you from listening: few pre-war artists have the kind of power to really transport you into the depths of the Delta that Patton has. There's just something about that voice... anyway, before I slip into any politically incorrect clichés, just remember that nobody's blues collection is ever complete without the complete (quite minuscule, actually, compared to gazillions of identical recordings by much lesser artists from the same period) output of Charley Patton on the shelf.
1960-1965 ○ Cher: Jury still out.
1965-1970 ☻Cactus: This band, formed out of the ashes of Vanilla Fudge and masterminded by the titanic rhythm section of Tim Bogart and Carmine Appice, is pretty much the spiritual predecessor of KISS — except that in their utmost reverence for the second S («stupid») they were known to slightly neglect the first S («simple»), and their brand of sludgy, cumbersome heavy rock can very easily get boring, which, in turn, leads to all their stupidity becoming irritating rather than a guilty pleasure. With no decent songwriting, no serious clues about how to overcome the limitations of 12-bar blues genericity, and a lead vocalist forever locked in the solitary state of «drunk and bawling», most of their studio records consist of one or two fun tracks (usually when they introduce speed into the formula) and heaps of forgettable throwaways. They were quite a kick-ass live band, though, adding lots of extra cheap thrills and musical kerosene when facing a demanding audience. Possible starting point: Fully Unleashed: The Live Gigs (2004) is seriously the only Cactus album worth hearing or owning — it has all their best songs on it, performed with extra energy, and if pure, undiluted brawn is what you're after, then their only competitor from the early Seventies is Slade.
☺Cake, The: A short lived girl group from the Summer of Love era, they only lasted for a couple of years that took them all the way from New York to California, but left behind a rather curious legacy — a mix of Motown, Atlantic, psychedelic, and baroque pop elements that ranged from generically obsolete (for 1967) to bizarrely innovative and, occasionally, quite emotionally haunting. With more-than-decent production values, excellent singing voices, and serious songwriting talent (most of their best material was self-penned rather than covered), there is absolutely no telling where this could have ended, had they stuck together — unfortunately, lack of promotion and image problems (it is unlikely that they were superficially perceived as anything other than a curious relic from an already bygone era) crashed the band almost as soon as it took off. Possible starting point: A Slice Of Cake (1968), their second album, fully concentrates on original songwriting and is therefore preferable to the self-titled debut. However, that hardly matters, since both are short enough to fit on one CD, and this is exactly how you are most expected to encounter them (a 2007 compilation under the title of More Of Cake Please).
☺Can: Along with Kraftwerk, Can are probably the most recognizable name on the «Krautrock» scene of the 1970s — and, unlike Kraftwerk, Can may actually be qualified as «rock» without reservations. Both bands started out as alumni of the experimental music scene (Stockhausen, etc.), but where Kraftwerk expanded from this into the music of the future (electronica), Can preferred to merge avantgardism with more «earthly» directions — blues-rock, R&B, and funk, making themselves more easily accessible for fans of guitar-based psychedelic jamming. Few bands in the 1970s could excel in groove-based (rather than free-form) jamming better than Can, but the best thing about the band is that it practiced the «quality check» principle — spontaneity and flight of imagination was valued above everything else, but only the truly inspired bits made it onto the mastertapes, with Holger Czukay splitting and splicing the material in post-production with the utmost craftsmanship. The band's unique approach to «carefully ordered improvisation» and, of course, their unmatched technical skills (all four core members were killer musicians) made them into true giants of the underground music scene — too far out there to achieve big commercial success even at the height of the popularity of progressive rock in the early 1970s, but an undying legend all the same, whose influence is pretty much unmeasurable and whose critical reputation only continues to grow decades after the end. Possible starting point: If you are afraid of too much sonic pressure at once, Soundtracks (1970) is the perfect introduction to the classic Can sound — you get to know both of their early vocalists with each one's individual style of crazy, and you get short catchy «odd-pop» songs and lengthy mind-blowing jams organically integrated with each other. But if you are not afraid of anything, stick to the general critical recommendation of Tago Mago (1971), which is like this band's equivalent of the Missa Solemnis — a multi-part ritual for communication with... the other side.
○ Canned Heat: Self-proclaimed «kings of the boogie», these guys symbolized three things in the late Sixties: (a) the cosmic triumph of John Lee Hooker-type music, when gritty one-chord blues vamps are enhanced with rock'n'roll headbanging; (b) the absoluteness of the ideals of brotherly/motherly peace, love, and understanding; (c) the easiness of slipping from pot to hard drugs, which eventually caused the death of several of the band's key members. With some real talent to burn and a couple of really enjoyable albums behind their belt, they, however, were unable to overcome their B-level status, and after the death of their one most talented member, Alan Wilson, in 1970, began a long and painful process of degeneration, only to re-emerge twenty years later as a get-their-shit-together, competent, but still not very bright retro-blues-rock outfit that simply refuses to go away, no matter what they're offered. Watch Woodstock — their filmed appearance there captures just about everything there is about this band, all three aspects (well, the hard drug thing is only hinted at, but you can sort of see it coming), and if it intrigues you, proceed from there. Possible starting point: Boogie With Canned Heat (1968) probably captures them at their absolute best; the rest of the catalog should rather be compressed into a representative compilation.
☺Captain Beefheart: Jury still out.
☺Camel: Maybe the quintessential «second generation progressive rock» band in all of Britain, Camel pretty much epitomized the genre's evolution around 1973-76: intelligent, inobtrusive, relatively unpretentious, rather quiet and reserved music, equally steeped in blues, folk, and jazz (but not a lot of true symphonic influence). Andy Latimer, the band's heart and soul (although in those early years, keyboardist Pete Bardens played almost as big a role), is a cool blues guitarist with some real juicy tones at his disposal (somewhat derivative of David Gilmour, but much more than just a copycat) and songwriting talent to burn; most of it, unfortunately, had been burnt in less than a decade (1973-1981), after which the band was largely reduced to Latimer solo and turned into a tasteful, but boring New-Age-adult-contemporary-synth-prog. (The last two albums were a pretty decent comeback, though). Anyway, Camel are perfect when you're in that quiet brooding mood — solitary late evenings with the rest of the world completely shut out is a perfect setting for Latimer and company to transport you to an ideal fantasy world of noble loners, unfortunate idealists and that one perfect romance that never comes to be. Possible starting point: The Snow Goose (1975) is typically considered the band's early, completely instrumental, conceptual masterpiece, but I've always been slightly more partial to Nude (1981).
○ Candi Staton: Jury still out.
○ Captain Beyond: A «quasi-super-group», formed in the early 1970s by outcasts from and remnants of various B-level psychedelic conglomerations from the end of the previous decade (Mark I Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, Johnny Winter's original band, etc.), these guys did not last very long, but still managed to secure themselves a few square inches of burial ground in the pantheon. Theirs was a pretty decent merger of contemporary heavy rock with contemporary progressive influences, all the while retaining the old idealistic hippie spirit, and everything about it was decent — modestly strong songwriting, good musicianship, and a lead singer (Rod Evans) who could sound passionate and serious without succumbing to the inflated pomp that often goes hand in hand with such seriousness. Unfortunately, they arrived on the scene a little too late to capture a special niche for themselves, and their noble, but suicidal refusal to go in the direction of commercial pop pretty much sealed their fate in a few years. Possible starting point: Captain Beyond (1972) is the obvious place to go first — the second album would not rock so hard, and the third «reunion» album from 1977 suffers from the replacement of Evans by a much more pompously awful singer, although it still has a few nice moments.
☺Carole King: You shouldn't even begin to try searching for unexpected psychological depths in Carole King's output — she has always been America's #1 "Keep It Simple, Sentimental" female songwriter, and unpretentiously proud of it. Carole's main asset, apart from, of course, the undeniable melodic gift, is her disarming charisma — few performers succeed in creating such a warm, soothing, trustworthy, believable atmosphere just by cozying down at the piano and singing simple words that do not even pretend to ascend the lower rungs of «rock poetry». Unfortunately, this asset, while extremely helpful at the start of her solo career, eventually turned into a seemingly self-sufficient quality, as King's gift for inventive and catchy melodicity waned over the years and her soft-rock arrangements steadily declined into generic pablum; eventually, she just morphed into that «nice lady around the corner» whose happy smile and conventional life advice every day you treat with the same attention as a piece of furniture. But if you want the ultimate in happy smiles and life advices, nothing still beats those few years in the early 1970s when her pop instincts were still intact, and fertilized the soft-rock singer-songwriting agenda like nothing else could — James Taylor may have been a good friend and all, but he was all in black and white next to Carole's rainbow of colors. Possible starting point: Needless to insist that one should start anywhere else other than the classic Tapestry (1971), but there are some fairly strong records on both chronological sides of it. The important thing is to stop after 1982, since all Carole King albums after that suffer from horrible arrangements and production, and the songwriting is grandmotherly mediocre at best.
1976-1989 ○ Cabaret Voltaire: Led by grim Sheffield kids Stephan Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk, these guys began as radical avantgarde experimentators, busily constructing one corner of the industrial scene next to Throbbing Gristle; then, placing themselves somewhere at the meeting point between «radical avantgarde» and «intelligent mainstream», they unleashed a never-ending series of albums that wove industrial, electronic, and minimalist threads into rhythmic patterns, so that young people all over the planet could happily dance their way to the end of the world. The music sometimes compromised with pop values, but never embraced them properly, the same way that dozens of other New Wave-era groups could stake their claim to fame and fortune — on the other hand, the «danceability» of the music could also alienate «serious» crowds, so the Cabaret Voltaire fanbase was always limited. Over two decades of work, they gradually made the transition from a more guitar-based, dreary, cavernous sound to fully electronic textures in the realms of house and techno music, sometimes sounding one step ahead of their competition and sometimes one step behind, but almost never embarrassing themselves (except for some missteps in the late Eighties when the music became «too happy» for its own good). Nevertheless, this is definitely one band I'd rather prefer to quietly «respect» than actively «enjoy». Possible starting point: This one is a real stumper — they have so many albums out of the same comparable quality. The first of those that made more than just an average impression on me was 2x45 (1982), so this is the one I'd probably go along with, but it's so much a matter of taste (if not random luck) that... well, pretty much anything up to Micro-Phonies (1984) represents the «classic» period, and pretty much any of their 1990s albums is in the IDM camp, if you really need guidelines.
○ Carcass: The Foul Four of Liverpool, these guys took extreme metal to new heights when, inspired by the success of Napalm Death, they invented a new variety of grindcore — the morgue variety, painting verbal and visual portraits of utter grossness to go along with the brutal minimalistic riffage, insane tempos, laconic running length, and growling vocals. Although many others followed in their footsteps, trying with verve to upstage their progenitors (and at the same time cloning them so much that many of them even began with the same letter, like Cadaver or Cannibal Corpse), Carcass still managed to remain ahead of the pack — largely because they would significantly shift their image from album to album, until, by the mid-Nineties, they'd almost come close to turning into a «classic rock» band, at which point they thought it wise to stop and just disbanded, leaving behind a relatively small legacy that is worth exploring from top to bottom, unless you happen to be pathologically afraid of words like putrefaction and uterogestation. Possible starting point: This depends on how well you are pre-adapted to this kind of music — Heartwork (1993) is more sparing in terms of melodicity, and does not revolve entirely around cadaverous matters, but for the strong-hearted, the band's debut Reek Of Putrefaction (1988) should be the obvious point of entry, since they would never be more extreme than on this arch-dirty collection of 22 brief bursts of insane macabre energy.
☺Cars, The: Probably the best example of the missing link between «classic» and «modern» pop/rock, at their best these Bostonian guys were more than just a talented pop band with a knack for vocal and instrumental hooks — there's an air of melancholy and world-weariness that permeates most of their career and makes even the most upbeat of their songs soak in a happy/sad, psychologically non-trivial atmosphere. If anything, their main problem was that the first album came out too perfect to allow them to continue a steady journey upwards: pretty much their entire agenda was uncovered in about thirty minutes, and no matter how hard they tried (either by darkening the atmosphere on Panorama, or going synth-pop almost all the way on Heartbeat City), they never really evolved beyond the respectably tasteful, but small niche that they carved out for themselves from the very beginning. Possible starting point: The Cars (1978) unarguably remains their highest point — it's like a greatest hits package all by itself —the rest of the band's catalog deserves further study depending on how much you like the first album.
○ Cheap Trick: Jury still out.
1989-1998 ○ Cardiacs: One of the craziest, if not the craziest band to appear on British soil in the 1980s — and that is not necessarily a compliment. Specially to describe Tim Smith's music, the critical establishment had to come up with the term «pronk» — «progressive punk» — and the same establishment used to actively put it down for committing atrocious sacrileges against the classic sacred values of punk. In reality, Cardiacs were «mashers»: they would take just about anything urbanistic (pop, blues rock, punk, ska, symphonic rock, etc.), chop it up, mix the ingredients in the most unusual combinations and release the results as convoluted artistic statements that seem like perfect illustrations for the statement «art is what you make of it». In their defense, they truly sound like nobody else (particularly in the Eighties), and the sheer complexity and unpredictability of Smith's approach to the pop music formula can sometimes baffle the mind more than it may be baffled by the likes of Zappa or Beefheart. But personally, I find it very difficult to «mentally visualize» 9 out of 10 of their ideas, or to make them come alive with meaning — admire and respect the form, yes, but failing to perceive (not to mention describe) the substance behind their tonal labyrinths. That said, I would agree that no Big Picture is complete without hearing and trying to digest at least one Cardiacs album; and they do get far more belated recognition these days than they did in their prime, so it's not just some obscure act from out of nowhere that you'd be producing to boost your indie credo. Possible starting point: A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window (1988) arguably has the deepest and catchiest songs of their career (as well as the closest they ever came to a bona fide commercial pop hit), but on the whole, the band had remained highly consistent over two decades, and aside from the earliest cassette tape-only recordings that suffer from hideous sound quality (but still contain some of their best written material), it really makes no difference where to start. Actually, an even better choice might be Cardiacs Live (1988) from that same year — somehow, all those crazy songs end up sounding much better with doubled energy onstage, not to mention that it also works as a «best-of» package.
☺Cardigans: This Swedish band seems to be pursued by the post-ABBA curse: people are too wary around their brand of soft pop, centered around two male songwriters and (in this case) one female singer, even if the melodic skills of The Cardigans are quite favorably comparable not only to the ABBA songwriters, but to any non-Swedish pop band of the 1990s. With their early records, they pretty much invented a special subgenre, a sweet mix of lounge jazz and folk-pop, seasoned with intelligent and slightly surrealistic melancholia of Nina Persson's vocal delivery — and then they ended up doing Black Sabbath covers in that style! If that alone does not stimulate your curiosity, then how about there being three distinct stages to the Cardigans — the sweet early one (probably the best), the «commercial» dance-oriented middle one, and the «mature», more conventional-adult-pop-tinged one that still has its benefits? At the very least, in retrospect they honestly deserve to be better known and remembered than, say, Oasis. Possible starting point: Emmerdale (1994), their debut, already exposes all of their best sides — raise up some love for this one before moving on to the rest of the catalog.
○ Cat Power: This Georgian renegade with a flair for the mystical and the melancholic has plenty of admirers among the indie crowds, but I am not really one of them: for Chan Marshall, atmosphere always takes precedence over innovative or unusual melodies, and that atmosphere is almost always the same, suggesting some superhuman spiritual experience that most of us mere mortals will always be too coarse and shallow to understand. When she is in the mood, she can be a very talented songwriter and arranger, but that happens far too rarely for my taste; and her favorite hobby, that of taking other people's songs and turning them into completely interchangeable Cat Power broodings that bear no resemblance whatsoever to the original, while entertaining at first, pretty soon gets stale and even irritating. That said, as far as modernistic singer-songwriter patterns are concerned, she is certainly far from the worst out there, and at least she does vary her musical styles — from grunge to folk to country to electronica, she's done it all, refusing to be pigeonholed with any other pigeon than the Cat Power breed. Possible starting point: You Are Free (2003) is probably the one record where she experiments the most with melody, and, overall, the most accessible introduction to her world, although critics tend to prefer Moon Pix (1998).
○ Catherine Wheel: One of the innumerable bands to become popular in the wake of the grunge, alt-rock, and post-My Bloody Valentine explosion, these British fellows (with Iron Maiden Bruce Dickinson's cousin Rob at the wheel) began as a pretty respectable provider of psychedelic guitar fireworks and mopey romanticism, molding their shoegaze techniques into something a little more reminiscent of traditional pop structures, but still loyally placing otherworldly texture above pop hooks. Unfortunately, Rob Dickinson rather quickly fell in love with himself as a post-Freudian interpreter of the human spirit, and this led to a steady decrease of interesting elements in the band's music and a steady increase in its ego, until everybody just got bored with them and they did not survive the transition from the Nineties into the Noughties. Possible starting point: Ferment (1992) may not be their catchiest set of tunes, but still probably remains their most musically inspired, so this is one more case where you're probably better off starting at the very beginning and stopping as soon as you feel like it.