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.
○ Champion Jack Dupree: As a piano player, a singer, and a composer, William Thomas Dupree was nothing particularly special — no virtuoso abilities, no unusual timbre, and an all-too-well-known annoying propensity to put other people's melodies to new sets of lyrics and then repeat the same procedure twenty times. As a personality, however, William Thomas Dupree is one of the most fascinating figures of the pre-war blues era: part-time boxer (hence the ʽChampionʼ moniker), part-time bluesman, WWII serviceman who spent two years in a Japanese prison camp, and a tireless mover — born in Louisiana, determined to bring the joys of Southern blues to New York, and finally emigrating to Europe, where he spent about half his life serving as the blues ambassador to Switzerland, Denmark, England, Germany, and God knows what else. His discography, although quite tiresome and repetitive, is deeply personalized and serves as a sort of musical diary, where he not only narrates his own story, but also comments on various important events of the 20th century (mostly obituaries to people like FDR and MLK). And he was one of the very, very few pre-war urban blues figures to try and adapt to new realities — recording with small and big bands alike all the way up to the early Nineties. Not that I'd honestly recommend any of these records: with a tiny handful of exceptions, they are all interchangeable, and the only thing by the Champion that might reasonably belong in a comprehensive blues collection is a compilation of his early singles (like ʽJunker Bluesʼ, which is simultaneously responsible for providing Fats Domino with his first big hit and bravely speaking about drug addiction a good 25 years prior to the Velvet Underground). But everybody at least needs to know about this guy's existence — it's always instructive to know about the existence of people who had had a far more fascinating life than ourselves.
☺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 ○ Carla Thomas: The daughter of Rufus «The Dog» Thomas, she had a pleasant personality, a nice voice, and a bit of songwriting talent, but probably wouldn't have made it far enough without father's protection anyway. Although the industry went as far as to dub her «The Queen Of Soul» at one time (that was before Aretha's arrival), most of her recordings were soft, easy-going, not particularly outstanding R&B pieces — the only exception being ʽGee Whizʼ, an early «teen R&B» ballad that captured the public with its starry-eyed attitude. She never could properly replicate its success, though, and spent most of the Sixties struggling to stay afloat, before finally giving up and sinking in the early Seventies. But she was nice. Possible starting point: No single album can be recommended (let alone the fact that most of them are out of print) — just grab any compilation that has ʽGee Whizʼ, and maybe also ʽB-A-B-Yʼ, on it, and you're all set.
○ Chantays, The: Jury still out.
○ Chantels, The: Jury still out.
○ Cher: The consummate «give-the-people-what-they-want» entertainer, Cher has always been quite a colorful and intriguing personage even outside of the «Sonny and Cher» combo, from the moment she first established her femme-fatale solo presence in 1965 and all the way into the 21st century, where she remains as a gay rights icon, an obligatory ingredient of the «cockroaches and...» folklore, and a loyal supplier of whatever form of crappy mass-marketed pop music is the most en vogue at the present moment. The thing that really makes it fun to explore her career, though, are her serious artistic inclinations that flash through the veil of pop glitz every once in a while — no matter how corny her public image may look at any given time, she is neither dumb nor untalented, and her legacy contains enough material to fill at least a solid 2-CD compilation that would proudly hold its own next to the best mainstream pop songwriters of the Sixties, Seventies and... well, not the Eighties, but you get my drift. Unfortunately, it was always more important for Cher to be a «celebrity» and a «fashion icon» first, and a serious artist second — so that whenever the second entered into conflict with the first, she knew which aspect to sacrifice without a moment's hesitation. This is why her career is such an odd see-saw of commercial and critical flops and successes — and the relation between her hit records and artistic peaks is far from straightforward. Ever since her re-emergence in the Eighties as the big-haired fishnet queen of generic glam-pop and her conversion to equally generic techno-pop in the Nineties, embarrassments have ousted out successes at a ratio of 99:1, but it didn't always used to be like that, and the most disrespectful thing one can do to Cher is forever remember her for ʽBelieveʼ and ʽIf I Could Hold Back Timeʼ. Possible starting point: 3614 Jackson Highway (1969) is often singled out as a particularly decent record, with a strong rocking / funky sound to it, so this is probably the one that a beginner should first go for in order to form a positive impression; proceed from there with caution in both sides of the chronostream, bracing yourself for widely varying proportions of wheat and chaff.
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: The epitome — nay, indeed, the acme — of «weird» in popular music, Captain Beefheart is less of a captain and more of a litmus test on the audience. Are you just old plain basic, or are you acidic enough to get carried away and bewildered by the Captain's tireless efforts at reformulating and subverting the rules of music, poetry, and artistry? He may have been a genius, presaging the music of the future in a post-World War III world of superhuman survivors, or an obnoxious madman, irritating our beauty-wired brains for no excusable reason — but one thing is for certain: he was like nobody else, and he did things — and worked very hard for them, too — that nobody else did. I am not going to ever pretend that I «like» the creative evolution of Beefheart, but I am bewildered by it, and that may be enough. Possible starting point: Unless you are already a seasoned pro in many things, don't listen to conventional wisdom and start your Beefheart experience with Safe As Milk (1967) — his first album, already much less safe than milk, actually, but still giving you a perfect balance between avantgarde craziness and more conventional blues-rock and psychedelic pop. A good second choice would be to skip a decade and go for Shiny Beast (1979) — the Captain's «comeback» after a muddled period, and also a good example of balance. Only then will you be properly equipped to tackle Trout Mask Replica in all its alternate-universe glory.
☺Caravan: One of the «softest» progressive rock bands of the first generation, Caravan were probably the most accessible representatives of the Canterbury scene — despite being heavily influenced by progressive jazz, they were never above nurturing their pop side as well, and at the peak of their career, created some of the prettiest musical fairytales (with a heavy British flavor) in the world of prog: you could say they were the same to progressive rock as The Kinks were to the early rock'n'roll scene. Largely devoid of the theatrical antics and insane rocking energy of the first-tier prog bands, they could never hope for as much commercial and PR success; at the same time, their sound must have seemed way too pop-influenced for truly demanding listeners, no matter how many lengthy instrumental suites they would land on their albums. Like so many of their peers, Caravan eventually went too far in the pop direction, once guitar player and chief composer Pye Hastings had established de-facto dominance of the group, and squandered away the last bits of their reputation with a series of totally bland records in the late Seventies; attempts at repairing that reputation with a series of comebacks in the 1990s and 2000s were not highly successful. However, they still left us a handful of classic «soft prog» records that suggest they could have easily become the favorite band of, say, Lewis Carroll, had he been able to come back at 'em from the other side of the looking-glass. Possible starting point: In The Land Of Grey And Pink (1971) is commonly regarded as their masterpiece, and I have no qualms with that; however, just about anything from 1968 to 1976 is well worth anybody's attention.
○ Cat Stevens: Jury still out.
1970-1976 ☺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: She could have been just one more completely forgettable person from the R&B / soul / funk circuit of the early 1970s, but several circumstances make Candi Staton a figure worth remembering. First, she had a strong and complex personality, being endowed with a strong voice, some songwriting talent, and the ability to go from style to style without completely sacrificing personality (which, unfortunately, still did not help her in the disco debauchery of the late 1970s). Second, she had six husbands, all or most of which seem to have seriously abused her, and this pain — as well as a strong hope that one day it will finally be alright — permeates a lot of her output, even when other people wrote her songs for her. Third, some of these husbands, as well as occasional non-husbands, happened to be talented musical people, like Clarence Carter or Dave Crawford, supplying her with good material (including her biggest hit and probably best known song, ʽYoung Hearts Run Freeʼ). Fourth, in the Eighties she abandoned pop completely for the gospel scene — only to embark on a musically successful comeback in the 21st century, with a fully convincing retro sound, which sort of makes her the female counterpart of Al Green. All in all, it's been quite a long, strange trip for Candi, and she's well worth getting to know for any serious fan of classic R&B. Possible starting point: I'm Just A Prisoner (1970), her official debut, is unquestionably her finest hour (the fire, the energy, the full support of Muscle Shoals); the rest of her large catalog is quite spotty.
○ 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.
○ Carpenters: Jury still out.
○ Celeste: A little-known Italian band from the mid-Seventies, led by hypercreative drummer Ciro Perrino — at most, a footnote in the history of prog as such, but an allegedly important act for all those who have a special place in their heart for the Italian sub-scene of progressive rock. Their self-titled debut, although predictably derivative of their bigger Italian and British peers, had a certain special «pastoral» or «bucolic» aura that brought it more in touch with Italian pop, but without compromising the core aesthetic values of prog (complexity, inventiveness, depth, etc.). Later on, they would move closer to jazz-rock in their searchings, but did not even manage to see the release of a second album (together with other relics, it would only be released in the CD age). Nothing particularly jaw-dropping, but well worth a peek. Possible starting point: Celeste (1976) is the obvious choice; the posthumous releases are pleasant, but mainly there to satisfy the obsessive dude's curiosity.