After several years of, to my mind (and I think by general BoB concensus) underwhelming studio efforts from Akvarium, am I the only one who thinks that BG's recent (August 2005) collection of English-language demos is his strongest, most heartfelt and emotionally powerful recording in ages?
Having reviewed the generally (and justifiably) dissed Radio Silence and Radio London in these pages, it's no secret that I am uncommonly tolerant of his English-language work, so feel free to ignore me—but I think this collection is in a whole different class: It isn't just "not all that bad, considering"; it is genuinely "really good" by any standard of BG excellence!
Where did this utterly unheralded collection come from? Maybe it's just the "elder rock n roll statesman" Zeitgeist. It sounds awful to say so, but if BG were an American artist, this compilation might well be marketed and distributed by Starbucks—you know, an established, beloved artist intimately sharing with us a few favorite tracks from his formative years.
In typical BG-speak, The Man Himself describes the set (at Pustye Mesta) as "a virtual concert for an invisible but, for all that, not less real audience ..." and at Aquarium.ru as "examples of the kind of thing that sometimes occurs in an informal gathering, after a glass or so of smooth wine—the singing of some favorite songs that don't always manage to get sung from a stage."
And what songs might those be, Oh Master Bo?
1. From Galway To Graceland (Richard Thompson)
When it first posted, Aquarium.ru referred to this collection as "Summer Songs." I for one have never considered BG to be a "summer artist"—he's a fall/winter artist for me, and this collection, spare and melancholy in the extreme, does nothing to change that impression.
BG opens with Thompson's sad tale of a desperate Irish housewife who, upon hearing of Elvis's death, abandons her family and relocating to Memphis "to be with the King"; the song ends with her being dragged off to a mental hospital.
2. If You See Her Say Hello (Bob Dylan)
The laughs continue with this melancholy Dylan classic, in which our protagonist tries to remain casual and nonchalant in asking about his lost love, who—rumour has it—"might be in Tangier."
3. Turquoise (Donovan)
A pretty, not unhappy song. Donovan's music (of which I am not really a fan, though BG could change my mind) is great for BG's voice, and a pretty obvious influence on his songwriting style.
4. All I Have To Do Is Dream (Everly Brothers)
Boris harmonizing with himself, Everly style. Gorgeous!
5. I'm In Love (The Beatles)
Pure happiness in the early Beatles style, but delivered with the kind of (yes) melancholy undertone of a man in his 50's.
6. Alexandra Leaving (Leonard Cohen)
Dark. Sad. Mysterious. Beautiful. Cohen should be an honorary Russian.
7. Jock O'Hazeldean (Scots Trad.)
A nice song indeed, but the best part is BG's affected Scottish brogue.
8. Enchanted Gypsy (Donovan)
More Donovan. Again, pretty. Again, great for BG.
9. Play With Fire (Rolling Stones)
If possible, BG's version is even darker than that of the Glimmer Twins.
10. Crawling Back To You (Tom Petty)
Tom Petty?! Boris?! Not a match I'd have made, but hey, it works! Suffice it to say, Boris makes it his own. And that—for a really diverse and eclectic collection—this set really holds together as a unit. It's brilliant to listen to at a single sitting.
11. Walzing's For Dreamers (Richard Thompson)
The weakest song of the set, but—again—it fits. And "weak" here is a relative term. There is really not anything weak about this collection.
12. Great Horse (Marc Bolan/T-Rex)
Another BG take that (a) I wouldn't have considered a natural nmatch for him; (b) works beautifully; and (c) makes me look at both BG and the original artists with new eyes and new respect. And really, what more could you ask of a cover song? Besides, it's a necessary stop for those who love the Wah-Wah and Wilburizer turned up to 11.
13. First We Take Manhattan (Leonard Cohen)
Can you say, Akustika? I hope you can, because that's where this song belongs. Unlike some of these artists, Cohen and Grebenshikov are a natural match. And what is this sawing cello adding depth and ominous menace to the second half of the song? Shades of Gakkel, shades of classic Akvarium. The set's stand-out track.
14. Monolith (Marc Bolan/T-Rex)
A nice closer. Same comments as "Great Horse" above.
So. All in all, a lovely, worthwhile collection. Download it. Burn a CD of it. Invent cover art. Give copies to your family and friends.
Let me just add this—and it hurts to say it—I fear the anti-Boris, Rubekin, played some small role in this otherwise unimpeachable set. Though most of the songs are just Boris and his guitar (Pure Bliss!!!), a few feature synthetic noodlings (see, for example, the Irish pipes in Track 1). Happily, however, these effects are tastefully restrained and—curse my tongue!—may even enhance the recordings in places.
There you have it. Thanks for your time. Over and out. Boris notes "It's for you that we here have gathered all of these together here! Thanks!" Thanks back at you, Boss. ;-)
p.s. "You Belong to Me"—last year's pre-Zoom Zoom Zoom teaser track—fits in perfectly with the Home Recordings set, and should probably be considered an obligatory "Bonus Track" for all you busy downloaders out there. The match in style and tone is pretty much seamless. (download here)