Archive | September 2012

“The Police” Introduction or The Egoism of the Sting

In spite of all of their successes (50 million albums sold world wide, groundbreaking tours, musicians who went on to bigger and better things) “The Police” have a lot to answer for in the music world.

On the one hand, there are those who praise their ability to balance experimentation with expert musicianship and well composed, catchy, short tunes. Some people believe they helped expand the range of punk music to include reggae, jazz, exceptional playing skills and synthetic textures.

On the other hand, Sting.

Or as he prefers to be called “Guy LaDouche.”

Of course, the band does have more negatives than just Sting (as hard as that is to believe). For example, they have accused of cultural appropriation (the use of ska and reggae rhythms) and for cynically exploiting a youth movement (punk).

After all, all three musicians were at least in their 30’s when they formed, with guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland having already achieved some degree of notoriety and success in the New Animals and prog band Curved Air. Their ridiculous bleach blonde haircuts have a lot to do with that, as do their absurd album titles.

And then there are those people who accuse them of SELLING OUT punk ideals (which they didn’t have anyways according to these critics, but I digress) by laming out, slowing down and turning into a joke of a dinosaur stadium band with the Adult Contemporary sounds and songs of the turgid “Synchronicity” a dry-run for a solo Sting career of cheese ball crap that sucked.

I can’t stress how big of an obstacle “Sting” is to enjoying this band. It’s kind of like passing a kidney stone the size of the Blarney Stone except kissing that stone will bring you no good luck of any kind.

Happy to be of “douchervice!”

Which of these sides do I fall on? Well, I actually really like “The Police” a lot in spite of the “Sting Factor.” In fact, the sad truth is that I like “The Police” not “in spite” of Sting but because of Sting! After all, how can you not like a band member that writes 98% of the songs for a band? Clearly, there is more to this story than a simple “Sting sucks” party line as much as I agree with the general idea.

The obvious conclusion to draw here is that Sting was, at one point, an incredible songwriter. Perhaps not in the lyrics department (Sting is pretty wonky when it comes to that, often stretching awkward for a rhyme or literary reference) but the melodies of the songs cannot be topped by any pop band of that period. Because, in spite of the band’s reggae and punk sounds, they are a pop band through and through.

Of course, I can’t way that the quality of the band rests entirely on Sting’s feet. He may have written the songs, but I have this sneaking suspicion that Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland helped arrange them into much more edgy musical compositions then they would have been otherwise. After all, Summers played in a rather…ahem…experimental edition of the New Animals while Curved Air was one of the wildest bands of the 70’s.

Sting was a classically trained jazz fan.

Seen here appreciating jazz.

I have no evidence of this but I think Summers and Copeland were just fine letting Sting write the majority of the music (Copeland usually had a goofy song or two up his sleeve while Summers contributed a few instrumentals and some rather weird things) as long as they got to help arrange it.

This is probably why those first few albums are so great and alive with energy. Sting’s natural musical tendency (just look as his solo career) is for a sleepy, jazzy sound that is technically immaculate but boring as well. Summers and Stewart weren’t so into that: Stewart was a snappy rhythm guitarist and experimentalist that later stood toe-to-toe with Robert Fripp on a series of textural albums. He wasn’t much of a soloist or songwriter but his arrangement ideas and instrumental themes are solid.

Meanwhile, Stewart Copeland could probably get the award for “most underrated American drummer ever.” Copeland had excellent chops that he rarely if ever completely flashed (lots of restraint) but would often throw out if the song needed it. His tom rolls are creative as hell and the man is legendary for his work on the high-hat. Hell, on Peter Gabriel’s song “Red Rain” he is credited for just “high hat.”

So, “The Police” sound in the early days was basically a mix of pretty basic reggae ideas with punk speed and rock style. Later, they expanded into creating more textural songs (such as on “Regatta de Blanc” and “Zenyata Mondata”) before completely abandoning themselves to synthesizers with “Ghost in the Machine.”

Did you read my poem? I love you.

However, the band’s continuing arrangement and playing skills (pushed by Sting’s once impeccable melody writing skills) made albums like “Ghost in the Machine” experimental tour-de-forces that actually charted. And while “Synchronicity” is their blandest album technically, it still has an experimental streak: listen to Summer’s guitar work to see what I mean.

While I fall more on the side of thinking the band was “great” I also have a few issues with them. Blanding out can be done well (as this band did) but blanding out is blanding out and those later albums are indeed a hard sell sometimes. There’s still enough edge to keep out of the dreams of blue turtles but not by much.

Plus, none of the band members really had a good sense for lyrics. Sting probably did best but he is the mind that thought “I came here seeking only knowledge/things they would not teach me of in college” was a good rhyme. Stewart Copeland is usually pretty goofy or satirical but without really any obvious thought of philosophy behind it.

The less said about Summers’ lyrics the better.

Trust me, when you hear the lyrics to “Be My Girl – Sally” you’ll understand why Andy was voted “Most Likely to Make Sting Look Good by Comparison.”

So, while I think the band was definitely worthwhile and genuinely deserves being as popular and legendary as they have become, I also cannot defend them as completely as I once did. Their faults are obvious faults (I didn’t even go into Sting’s overwhelming, unbearable pretensions as he is truly pretentious in that I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about half the time but he seems to think he does) but not unbearable and they released a high number of excellent tunes with only a few true stinkers. They also helped expand the textures of rock and roll in new and exciting ways. What’s not to like?

Well, STING for example. As I said, he’s really, REALLY hard to get around! Mostly his head of course…

I’ve read somewhere, that the collective egos of Bono and Sting would, if combined, create gravity of self esteem so intense an egotistical black hole would form that would suck the self respect of everybody in the known universe inside, never to return.

Great metaphor! I think I’ll steal it (note: I’m not saying Sting actually stole any melodies or lyrics in his life. It’s just that anti-Sting humor is easy and half funny so I’m going overboard. Why are you still reading this?)!

“ABBA Live” Review

“ABBA Live” cover.

1) Dancing Queen; 2) Take A Chance On Me; 3) I Have A Dream; 4) Does Your Mother Know; 5) Chiquitita; 6) Thank You For The Music; 7) Two For The Price Of One; 8) Fernando; 9) Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight); 10) Super Trouper; 11) Waterloo; 12) Money Money Money; 13) The Name Of The Game/Eagle; 14) On And On And On.

8 out of 10

ABBA may have broken up in 1982, but there is always a demand for product from bands such as these. While the girls ended up getting a few hits on their own, they happily and eagerly retired after awhile. The boys created their rather ambitious “Chess” musical (which I won’t review because I don’t think I could do a musical justice) that did well as an album but failed on Broadway. The band insisted they’d never get together again, not even for a one-off concert. They’ve stuck to this, even in spite of an alleged offer to reunite for 2 fucking billion dollars.

Sorry for the swear but that’s just shocking to me. I got to give the band credit for resisting coming together for a huge paycheck. But their resistance to putting out new product has lead to a steady stream of greatest hits, box sets, album remasters, collections of their Spanish tracks (two CD’s worth!) and even a rather disposable and crappy musical and movie based on their music. Almost all of these have been ignorable (with the exception of the remastered albums, which often feature a ton of hard to find bonus tracks).

Perhaps the first of these releases was 1986’s “ABBA Live.” Many fans ignored this album as they simply couldn’t imagine ABBA being a worthwhile band. In fact, the band has only released it a handful of times on CD and has not updated it or packed it with any of their studio album collections.

This is a shame because the album isn’t really that bad. Yes, it has a slight downgrade because ABBA is simply not made to be appreciated live. At least not in an audio form: the live footage available of the band show an energetic, geeky and visually appalling (yet entertaining) show that would have been a lot of stupid fun to see.

But the truth is the band is simply one of those bands that was made for studio perfection. This problem plagued the Beach Boys too but might have been worse for them because the musicians that played on their albums were usually NOT the same musicians who played the music live. In other words, they used a lot of studio musicians.

Not to say that ABBA didn’t use studio musicians: after all, Frida wasn’t rocking down those basslines while Agnetha pulled a Karen Carpenter and drummed her way through the sessions. No, ABBA used sessions musicians to create a full, rich and immaculately produced and played sound.

The advantage ABBA had over the Beach Boys was that their touring band was also their studio band. And that they basically used the same studio band for nearly all of their recordings, only swapping out a musician or two for a few different sessions and album dates. These musicians helped contribute to making ABBA’s sound as rich, alive and yet coherent as possible. It also helped ensure the band sounded good live.

And they do sound good, even as you miss all the little details from the studio recordings. I won’t really go into individual track reviews because that’s rather silly for such an album: all of the tracks are played with plenty of energy and verve but aren’t really transformed into anything special by the live atmosphere.

One track that does benefit from this update is “Does Your Mother Know?” which goes from a dinky but high energy rocker into one of the most ferocious numbers the band ever played. It’s still a creepy as shit song but it’s so easy to get carried away by the energy and joy of the song that it’s easy to forgive the lyrics.

It’s cool to see that the band was also willing to play two of their most complex numbers (“The Name of the Game” and “Eagle”) live but is such a shame to see them crammed together in such an ugly way. It’s also a shame that “Eagle” loses so much of its beautiful atmosphere in a live setting. The band really works its ass off to make it work but they fall just a little too short of the goal to make it worthwhile.

All of the rockers on the album (such as “On and On and On” and “Take a Chance On Me” have increased energy, speed and excitement but lack all the intricacies that made them such fun songs. The ballads such as “Chiquita” do qualify as good thanks to the intimacy of the atmosphere but the children’s choir on “I Have a Dream” sounds and looks as tacky as always.

But on the other hand, its amazing that any of the songs sound convincing at all. After all, wouldn’t ABBA be one of those premiere studio bands? Yes, I’m sure some over dubbing was done here, but don’t the girls just sound amazing? Like, perfectly in pitch and perfectly in control of their voices? That is quite an accomplishment considering the stuff they are singing.

Plus, it’s amazing to hear Benny really let loose with some true fast paced keyboard playing. The man goes absolutely ape-shit and I lament that they didn’t include “Intermezzo No. 1” (found in the “ABBA: Movie”) as it is truly a joy to watch the man play. Lasse Hallendar (the band’s lead guitarist) is also given room to shine and while his solos don’t exactly sound better than the studio work they all sound great.

Bjorn does serve as something of the weak point in the band live: he has always been an inconsistent vocalist (he makes an ass out of himself on “Two for the Price of One” although he sounds great barking out “Does Your Mother Know?”) and his guitar playing has always been competent but mostly rudimentary rhythm work.

So, is this album worth a listen? I’d say so but it’s not for anybody but the most dedicated ABBA enthusiasts. Casual fans will hate the live sound and “imperfections” while hardcore fans will delve into the little details and try to relive ABBA’s live glory days. Plus, I got it for five bucks (and I’ve seen it cheaper) so it’s not as if you’d be set back as much as collecting the band’s studio albums (though those box sets can be purchased for under 50 bucks on some sites).

“The Visitors” Review

“The Visitors” Album Cover.

1) The Visitors; 2) Head Over Heels; 3) When All Is Said And Done; 4) Soldiers; 5) I Let The Music Speak; 6) One Of Us; 7) Two For The Price Of One; 8) Slipping Through My Fingers; 9) Like An Angel Passing Through My Room

9+ out of 10

ABBA began the 80’s as a personal mess. Their commercial success was still high but the band was a seething mass of interpersonal gripes and confusion. Benny and Bjorn were getting sick of writing pop songs and yearned to write something lengthier, more substantial and perhaps even theatrical. The girls were getting sick of dealing with their ex husbands on a daily basis. And most vitally, the world was getting a little sick of ABBA.

As a result, ABBA’s 1980 album, “The Vistors” ended up being their swan song. It was certainly not expected to be: the band was already in the studio the next year working on a new album, finishing only six songs before finally calling it a day. The reasons for breaking up are two fold: not only was the band getting sick of work together but their commercial fortunes were declining.

“The Visitors” and it’s singles did not move the same kind of big numbers as their past albums and singles. This isn’t to say the album wasn’t successful: ABBA is ABBA and ABBA is money. However, the drop off was indeed noticeable and the band felt it was the right time to just call it a day. After all, while some bands can just go underground or appreciate a cult audience, ABBA was simply not one of those bands. They were meant for mass success or no success at all.

So, what of their final album? Why did it not garner the same kind of hits past albums had earned? Was it simply a back lash against ABBA? Or were the musical contents of a lower quality than in the past? You can see by the grade that this isn’t really the case.

The problem with the album is that it is simply the least accessible, least pop oriented of all of ABBA’s albums. Instead of focusing solely on pop singles (though there are a few moments of that on the album) the band focuses on creating a sustained mood through creative (but minimalist) use of synthesizers and acoustic guitars. Benny had become a master synth soundscaper at this point, making Bjorn’s guitar barely necessary.

The album is also the most downbeat, highly personal album of ABBA’s career. Granted, the band never thrived in ultra personal settings in the past. But the album is truly a departure in that it focuses almost solely on negative emotions, broken hearts, growing old and other middle aged concerns. Townshend (who had praised the band in the past) claimed that ABBA was one of the few rock bands who bothered to sing about middle age (Townshend himself is a big writer on these themes) something which may seem boring on the surface but which is interesting if done well.

Against all odds, though, ABBA does it well here. The lyrics, again, aren’t exactly Dylan quality but they aren’t bad at all. They’re a little aggressively downbeat, yes, but that’s the whole point. While Bjorn will never win an award for poetry, he shows an ability to craft simple but engaging and emotionally resonant stories on this album.

That is except for the one upbeat song on the album, the song that stands out like a sore thumb and which gets even hardcore fans annoyed: Two for the Price of One. This is the requisite “Bjorn” song and it’s easily, easily the worst song in this category. The melody is pretty primitive by this (or really any) band’s standards and the lyrics are truly, truly awful. Hearing Bjorn urge the listener to “buy two for the price of one” (just guess what he’s singing about: Kiss would have been proud, I’ll say that) reminds the listener of his equally questionable rants on “Does Your Mother Know?” Like that song, it’s easy to see they’re trying to pass it off as silly, joking or even against what he’s singing but Bjorn’s singing is so straightforward and earnest that even if the band is being ironic, it’s impossible to tell.

The inclusion of this song is a damn shame because it grinds the album to a halt and seems so out of place. I don’t normally worry so much about “thematic unity” when it comes to an album. I like diversity and a good song is a good song, regardless of whether it sounds out of place or not. Hell, sometimes an out of place song becomes a highlight simply for being so out of place. However, this song completely ruins the mood by not only not fitting the mood but by actively being a bad, bad song.

The album immediately sets the mood with the most sinister sounding, imposing song the band ever managed to create. “The Visitors” features dark synthesizer pulses more appropriate for Peter Gabriel’s darkest work or for the most sinister (har har) of Depeche Mode songs. When the girls come in singing the “Death is at your door” melody it becomes clear that this is no longer the band that opens their albums with something as wildly upbeat as “Super Trouper.”

The lyrics don’t help either: they’re actually some of Bjorn’s best:

“I hear the doorbell ring and suddenly the panic takes me

The sound so ominously tearing through the silence

I cannot move, I’m standing

Numb and frozen

Among the things I love so dearly

The books, the paintings and the furniture

Help me…”

Not exactly poetry but you must remember this is the first song on an ABBA album. Instead of setting a cheerful, happy mood the band immediately sets a dreary, depressing picture. Other lyrics include:

“The signal’s sounding once again and someone tries the doorknob

None of my friends would be so stupidly impatient

And they don’t dare to come here

Anymore now

But how I loved our secret meetings

We talked and talked in quiet voices

Smiling…”

The song later kicks into a disco beat but it becomes clear that ABBA is doing a political statement! The song is about political dissidents in communist countries. You may argue the band doesn’t offer any insights into the situation but I would say I appreciate this approach more than trying to go into detail on how to fix the problems with these countries. They go into a more psychological approach which is smart and more universal. Amusingly, some people think the song is about UFO abduction which is understandable but a tad of.

The band tries to bring a smile back to your face with the minor hit “Head Over Heals.” But if the song is supposed to be so upbeat, why is the instrumentation so grim sounding? Why is the girl mentioned in the song so stupid about love? Why does she keep falling head over heals? And why is it painted as such a grim affair, sonically?

The grim affair continues with “When All Is Said and Done.” The introduction seems somewhat hopeful but when the simple ostinato synth bass comes in the song becomes so minimal its painful. The acoustic guitar sticks to punctuating the song with occasional strums. The girls sing unhappy lyrics detailing the end of a relationship, using a bit overdone but effective metaphors and similes.

I don’t want to dwell on this album for pages and pages (I’m already working towards three at this point) so I’m going to point out that the rest of the album follows the basic formula set by the first three. “Soldiers,” “I Let the Music Speak” and “Slipping Through My Fingers” are minimalistic yet effective synth driven tunes with fairly self explanatory themes. “One of Us” was the big hit off the album (relatively speaking) with a genial mandolin introduction. Again, it’s more downbeat than any other given ABBA hit, meaning it didn’t reach too high on the charts.

The album reaches a startling conclusion with “Like an Angel Passing Through My Room.” This elegiac ballad features a single voice and a simple keyboard line as instrumentation. It actually feels like an angel passing through the room, pausing only to breathe a single angelic breath before leaving the room (and your life) forever.

I hate mulling so poetic over an ABBA album but it’s one of those rare cases where I’m really taken aback by the quality of an album. No, this album isn’t exactly high art or poetic. It’s synth driven foundation can be rather wearing and monotonous after awhile. One really misses the thick layers of instrumentation the band had mastered as song after song passes with little more than synthesizers and a single voice (harmonies are majorly down on this album).

I rate the album so highly though because I feel that it really shows how talented the guys were in a way that is outside their normal skill level. The band is really stretching to become more serious and more personal and they mostly succeed. No, few people are truly going to cry tears over this album but the effort and effectiveness of the album make it a great swan song for a great band.

The album is denied the absolute highest ratings because of “Two for the Price of One” and for the fact that it’s simply not indicative of what ABBA did best. That’s “Arrival” or “The Album.” But this brave album definitely shows the band was more than just “stupid pop pap.”

Inexplicable Albums: Squarepusher “Solo Electric Bass 1”

Where the hell did THIS come from?

Ever got an album by one of your favorite artists, popped it in, expected more of the same and been met with a “what the hell?” moment as the music blasts out of your speakers defeats all your expectations. Sometimes bands make a career out of abrupt left field changes in approach. Others come out of nowhere and confuse and befuddle fans.

Or at least they SEEMINGLY come out of nowhere. Sometimes these changes were there all along. This is where this  new series of articles comes into play: here, I will analyze where these “what the hell?” albums came from and what, if anything they have to offer to an artist’s legacy.

The first entry in this new series (don’t worry ABBA fans, the next review is coming soon) is 2009’s “Solo Electric Bass 1” from drum and bass pioneer “Squarepusher.” “Squarepusher” is best known for fast paced, complex drum patterns, hard hitting bass lines and wild synthesizer lines that broke new ground in electronic music and helped influenced fellow IDM artist Aphex Twin to explore similar routes.

THIS album is a live recording of unaccompanied electric bass solos. Not electric bass SYNTHESIZER solos: but actual played bass guitar solos. Everything sounds highly improvised (and likely was) and is simultaneously intimate, warm, complex and low key. It didn’t get very good reviews.

 

Not exactly relevant, but it is hilarious.

So, where did such an album come from in the “Squarepusher” discography? Well, casual fans may not have been aware of it but “Squarepusher” aka Tom Jenkinson is actually an incredibly accomplished jazz player. In fact, the “bass” in the “drum and bass” is almost always Jenkinson’s non-sampled playing. Considering the complexity of the bass parts on his albums, this is quite a feat.

In fact, jazz makes up a huge part of “Squarepusher’s” sound. Did you listen to that sample clip from above? If you did, you may have noticed the slight jaziness of the keyboard parts. This wasn’t an accident: Jenkinson often veers between hardcore electronic textures and more jazz influenced sounds.

1998’s “Music is Rotted One Note” is actually a tour-de-force of jazz fusion in which Jenkinson plays all the instruments himself. He often combines these jazz fusion tendencies with hard programmed electronic instrumentation, creating a sound that is uniquely his and is hard to replicate. Trust me, I’ve tried.

That actually makes “Solo Electric Bass 1” (remember, that album I’m supposed to be talking about?) make a bit more sense in context. Perhaps Jenkinson was tired of not getting enough recognition for his bass playing skills. Perhaps he wanted to attract attention to his solo bass tours. Maybe he was once again simply changing directions as he did with his next album, a near pop album.

When all is said and done, is the album good? Not really: it’s just a guy playing a bass for 40 minutes. No matter how good you are on the instrument, it’s really hard to make it sound awesome for an entire album. In fact, although I do admire the bravery of standing on stage and improvising a whole set on a bass guitar, it sounds and feels more self indulgent and egotistical than brave. Sorry Tom!

Yeah, I’m sure he’s losing sleep over it.

“Super Trouper” Review

“Super Trouper” album cover. Note the band is, rather cleverly, standing in the light of a Super Trouper spot light.

1) Super Trouper; 2) The Winner Takes It All; 3) On And On And On; 4) Andante, Andante; 5) Me And I; 6) Happy New Year; 7) Our Last Summer; 8) The Piper; 9) Lay All Your Love On Me; 10) The Way Old Friends Do

9 out of 10

After releasing “Voulez Vous” one can tell the band may have had a slight re-think of their position in the rock and roll world. The album was a huge success commercially, in spite of its “last one to the party” grab at disco. In spite of its success, I get the feeling the band noticed it was weaker musically than their past albums. That perhaps they hadn’t quite perfected their new style.

Or maybe they simply grew up. It’s hard to tell. Everybody knows that the band members were going through serious personal problems around this time. Basically, the formerly married couples divorced and became simply work partners instead of love partners. This is not a very good method of working and could have lead to disaster. In fact, it did lead to the band breaking up after two albums (during work on a third, which lead to only three album tracks and two singles).

Maybe it was the culmination of a lot of musical reflection and a lot of emotional turmoil but “Super Trouper” is the band’s most emotionally hard hitting album by this point. There are quite a few heart wrenching ballads that somehow feel more “real” than their past ballads. Obviously, the pain of losing each other was hitting the band hard, resulting in a lot of emotional pain that spills out all over this and the next album.

However, ABBA still realized that their upbeat songs tended to make them the most money. It’s understandable: the band is so good at upbeat that it’s hard not to fall under their upbeat songs’ spells. So, the record starts with the nearly incandescently bright “Super Trouper.” Perhaps this is appropriate enough: a “super trouper” is a stage light noted for its brightness.

The song basically works as an encapsulation of ABBA’s past work combined with a more synthesized, keyboard based approach. The “acapella” introduction has a feel of “Take a Chance on Me” while the piano runs sound a bit “SOS” in their simplicity and effectiveness (though completely major key, as opposed to the minor key of that song). However, the “bum bum thumpa thumpa” synth bass line of the chorus is pure “new style” ABBA and the second section of the chorus, which opens up with lots of deep throated “soo pa pa trooo pa paa” vocal harmonies and bigger than life piano and synthesizer textures is a near perfect combination of both styles.

The very next song is as dark as this song is bright: “The Winner Takes it All” is one of ABBA’s truest downbeat songs. Frida truly takes it all here, vocalizing in her slightly deeper tones. The piano and guitar melodies of the verse slightly ramble but not awfully. The pre-chorus of “the God’s may throw a dice” sounds like it’s about to erupt into an ABBA chorus meltdown but it doesn’t take off. It’s effective that way though as it illustrates the downbeat nature of the song. The melodies remain catchy and memorable but downbeat as hell and the “tell me does she kiss, the way we used to kiss” is one of the most heart breaking stretches of music in ABBA’s catalog.

Oddly, the reason the song is more effective is because of better than normal lyrics. Bjorn and completely taken over writing lyrics at this point and had gotten as good as he would ever get with this and the following album. They approach B+ level which is incredible given that this is the same man that wrote the D- level lyrics of “King Kong Song.

Bjorn actually stays on a pretty strong level of lyric writing throughout, especially on the following “On and On and On.” The song is semi-disco in that it’s a dancey song with a lot of synthesizers. The odd introduction is unforgettable and the synthesized voices and heavy stomp are incredibly effective as are the insistent melodies. However, the lyrics actually emerge as somewhat intriguing here: Bjorn is making fun of the celebrity lifestyle in a somewhat insightful and clever way. The lyrics don’t hit as hard as “The Winner Takes it All” but still hover around a B- level, which is outstanding for this band.

The album remains emotionally confusing as it progresses. “Andante Andante” is a slower piece with a high level of keyboards and a silly atmosphere that contrasts heavily with the darker, more heart wrenching feel of “Me and I” which also possesses a slight disco sound. Each of these songs has the typical instantly memorable melodies that the band is well known for writing while also being much more keyboard heavy and a bit “stiffer” in rhythm when compared to past songs.

“Happy New Year” is a lighter than helium ode to the promise of a New Year that is memorable but a tad on the trifle side. However, it’s beautiful contrasted by the darker “Our Last Summer.” The album is also very schizophrenic with the tempos and approaches here. The album is a bit more ballad heavy when compared to last albums but when the ballads are as well written and beautifully arranged as “Our Last Summer” it’s hard not to love each and every single one of the ballads.

In fact, the last half of the album seriously slows down when compared to the first half, as it also features the folksy “The Piper” which is folksy in melody but not in arrangement: as usual for the album, the band layers on a lot of keyboards and synthesizers. However, Benny remains a criminally underrated player and arranger who also possess impeccable taste in synthesizer tones: they never sound generic or boring but alive and unique.

The pen-ultimate track on the album simultaneously stands out like a sore thumb and fits like a glove. “Lay All Your Love On Me” is the darkest of ABBA’s dark disco songs (odd how gloomy this band liked to make their disco, besides “As Good as New” and “Kisses of Fire”) with unforgettable synthesizer riffs, gloomy as hell lyrics and an unforgettable “crash” at the end of each chorus that makes it hard to forget. This reviewer loves it when band’s let the beat…drop.

Oddly, the band closes the album with a semi-pompous song in “The Way Old Friends Do.” Allegedly recorded live with just Benny on accordion, the band then over dubbed a dozen more instruments (mostly synthesizers) to create a rich, full and anthemic sound. Some people think it comes across as incredibly pompous and overbearing while others shed a tear at it’s heart felt nature.

I think the song is well written enough melodically, harmonically and lyrically that it does avoid pure pompousness. Perhaps it would have worked better if it was just Benny on accordion (as it may have captured the intimate feel a bit better) but it also works as a great, anthemic album closer. I tend to think of it as a song designed to help bring the band member’s close together after their failed relationships.

“Super Trouper” naturally featured a ton of great hits and showcased a more mature and interesting band that had fully mastered their stiffer, more synthesized style. The band has also conquered writing in a more personal manner which made their lyrics a lot better than even the previous album. The album is diverse, fun, heart breaking, emotionally engaging and unforgettable.

However, the band didn’t reconcile their personally differences and they grew more depressed. Their last album, “The Visitors” grew even slower, weirder, more synthesized and incredibly introverted.

“Voulez Vous” Review

“Voulez Vous” album cover.

1) As Good As New; 2) Voulez-Vous; 3) I Have A Dream; 4) Angel Eyes; 5) The King Has Lost His Crown; 6) Does Your Mother Know; 7) If It Wasn’t For The Nights; 8) Chiquitita; 9) Lovers (Live A Little Longer); 10) Kisses Of Fire

8.5 out of 10

And ABBA’s streak of perfection comes to a halt nearly as soon as it began. After the success (commercially and critically) of “The Album” the band was stuck in a bad position: they could either stick their guns and stay in their “Euro” pop groove or they had to progress. They had reached the peak of perfection and seriousness with their last album. There was no way they could have really expanded on that album. What could a band as serious yet as seriously commercial as ABBA do in this situation?

Would they go punk? Cute: punk was already dead by the time this album was released and the band was obviously never going to go that way. New wave? Perhaps but that required a certain emotional seriousness the band wasn’t quite ready to touch yet (wait for an album or two, though). The band certainly couldn’t go disco could they? That was already a near dead genre and was already becoming a punch line. They wouldn’t…they couldn’t…they shouldn’t…they did.

Don’t worry: things aren’t as bad as all of that. Yes, this album is a drop down in quality from their last three but not an incredible amount. In fact, I”m having a hard time rating the album: part of me wants to give it an eight for delving so fully into such a “debased” style as disco. Another part of me wants to give it a nine for the quality of the songs. So, I’ll compromise: it’s an 8.5, giving it the lowest rating of ABBA’s “mature” albums.

The problem here is that the band is simply too good at disco to discard their efforts. Yes, it simplifies their sound a little, taking away a lot of the cool arrangement details that made “Arrival” and “The Album” such worthwhile albums. But the band doesn’t lose their ability over night. They just take a little less care with the songs, which does make them a little weaker. But it doesn’t make them bad songs.

For example, isn’t the string arrangement that opens “As Good As New” a lot of fun? It is a little light weight, sure but so is Mozart. I’m not saying the piece is anywhere near as good as Mozart but it has a similar lightweight, fun groove to it. The disco groove then kicks in and fans no doubt slap their head in unison. It’s understandable but the groove is solid and the band varies it up well with the “my my my my my my” bridge: it kind of kills the groove to a degree which is a cool idea in a disco song. The string introduction then serves as the chorus. The vocal melodies and instrumental melodies are all very catchy too.

The very next track, “Voulez Vous” comes next. It is a nearly perfect piece of “dark” disco. The introduction guitar parts certainly sound foreboding don’t they? Then the band kicks in with the dark verse melody which effortlessly transforms into the dark chanting of “Voulez vooooous ah ha!” The horn and string arrangements all reinforce the dark mood of this track. ABBA sure did have a weird understanding of disco.

The next few string of tracks then completely forget about disco for awhile. “I Have a Dream” flirts with a beautiful atmosphere but is a bit more pompous than prime ABBA. The children’s choir is a little tacky but the melody is strong and the arrangements decent. Two years earlier, it would have been a bit more fully arranged. The sitar sounding guitar part is a nice touch, though.

“Angel Eyes” is then just a great piece of ABBA pop that has as much to do with disco as James Taylor. Sure, it has some synthesizers and some strings but that doesn’t make a song disco. Instead, the song has an incredibly memorable verse melody and a set of great climaxes in the chorus. “The King Has Lost His Crown” is another great piece which has more to do with the ABBA style of old. These songs aren’t disco at all.

And neither is “Does Your Mother Know?” the Bjorn sung song of the album. It’s a bit of a controversial number: I think it’s basically fool proof musically, from the opening “bow bow bow”s to the simple guitar parts. Bjorn actually sounds pretty good on the song too. However, the song’s lyrics are way worse than normal as Bjorn tries to warn away a “much too young” fan from trying to sleep with him. But then why can he “dance with you honey, if you think it’s funny” or “talk with you baby, flirt a little maybe” while also imploring “does your mother know that you’re out”? Creepy as shit, especially when combined with Bjorn’s trademark shit-eating-grin.

“If It Wasn’t For The Nights” is probably the least memorable song on the album: it rather blandly and unsuccessfully mines the disco band wagon. Sure, there are a few catchy parts but nothing that truly stands out. “Kisses of Fire” the closing track suffers a similar fate: the chorus melody is much too simple compared to the monster tracks on this album and while it does successful imitate disco it’s a tad too boring in comparison to band’s best disco songs.

“Chiquita” then is one of the band’s best ballads. It’s so gentle and caressing when compared with the more trumped up “I Have a Dream” that it stands as perhaps ABBA’s most nakedly realized song at this point in their career. I used to hate the song but I was a fool for that. “Lovers (Live a Little Longer)” then stands as the most complex song on the album. It has a slight disco feel but it moves through so many tempo, time signature and melody changes that it becomes a weirdo highlight of the album.

As is obvious by this point, the album is certainly not the abortion that many fans painted to be at the time (and even now). Yes, there are more disco elements in the album than is usual for the band. However, it’s not as if these elements were completely absent from the band in the past (“Take a Chance On Me” and “I’m a Marionette” both utilize ‘disco-esque’ beats). It’s simply that the band utilized the elements more sparingly and perhaps more successfully in the past.

The reason for the slight drop off here is because the band was most likely simply tired. They hadn’t stopped working for nearly five years and even geniuses such as these guys are likely to get a bit creatively exhausted. However, each song on here (even the slight ones I mentioned earlier) have good musical ideas. It’s just that the band really didn’t work on them as well as they should have: they didn’t thicken them up enough or treat them with enough seriousness.

I insist though that any fan of the band will enjoy this album if they get rid of their “it’s disco therefore it sucks” mind set. Half or more of the songs are barely even disco! And the band did disco well (there are a few singles which I’ll review later that are even better examples of disco then the band utilized here) which helps make even those moments stand out.

So, while the album isn’t perfect, it helped move the band out of their previous style by replacing it into a new style which focuses more heavily on keyboards, synthesizers and dance beats. The band didn’t completely nail it here but would over the next two albums. Their last two albums are more fully immersed in a synthesized world but are so well done they become highlights of the synth pop genre. And oddly enough, the band would start to write really tolerable, almost good lyrics.

ABBA “The Album” Review

“The Album” cover.

1) Eagle; 2) Take A Chance On Me; 3) One Man, One Woman; 4) The Name Of The Game; 5) Move On; 6) Hole In Your Soul; 7) Thank You For The Music; 8) I Wonder (Departure); 9) I’m A Marionette.

10+ out of 10

By 1977, ABBA was perhaps the biggest band in the world. Their list of top 10 hits was already endless and the band had undertaken several world conquering tours. After creating a perfect and a near perfect album, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the band had taken a little break or if the quality of their records suffered a little. After all, who has time to write, arrange and produce continually top of the line records in between television performances, concert tours and movie making?

Apparently, ABBA had time: the boys and gals marshal their forces and create another essentially perfect album. “The Album” is the culmination of all the work they’d done at this point and is the high point in their catalog. It’s such a beautiful, fully realized album that the band’s later immersion into a more synthesized and even disco based sound could only be a let down.

But where could the band go after this? It’s not like the band could really repeat the success by topping themselves. They push their fusion of classical, folk, rock, pop and funk style as far as humanely possible by fusing it with another genre they’d only lightly flirted with in the past: progressive art rock.

This isn’t to say that ABBA suddenly starts writing 20 minute progressive suites dedicated to armadillo tanks. Sad to say, ABBA’s lyrics are actually better than Greg Lake’s in that they actually do make some kind of concrete sense and aren’t just profundity for the sake of profundity. The band is still writing catchy pop. However, their arrangements and ambitions thicken up a bit, reaching near Beach Boy or Beatles level. This makes “The Album” this their most “serious” album and the album that is the easiest to take seriously in their catalog.

The first sign that the band has gotten more serious comes with the very first track. “Eagle” is perhaps the highest point in the band’s catalog as far as pure writing and arranging goes. Sure, it may not be as insanely catchy as their past works. But the song’s mid-tempo stomp is perfectly highlighted by beautiful acoustic guitars, soaring electric work, thick synthesizer landscapes and near perfect use of a flute. The lyrics are a little silly (singing about a soaring eagle) but the arrangements, melody and singing work in perfect unison to create a complete atmosphere of flying. ABBA isn’t known for their atmospheric abilities but this track shows when the band wanted to, they could create a near perfect atmosphere within a pop song format.

However, the very next track on the album is the rather light weight “Take a Chance On Me.” However, while past albums would have been content to focus on the stomping beat and the incredible melodies this song layers on so many arrangement details that the song becomes head spinning. The first and most obvious genius arrangement detail is the acapella introduction: when the boys start chanting “take a chance take a chance take chika chik chance” it becomes impossible not to be enthralled. Then the beat kicks in with layers of keyboard hooks (the hook after “it’s maaaagiiiic” perfectly creates a ‘magical’ mood) and a commanding vocal performance that bulldozes over the listener.

Basically, the album is simply the band completely perfecting their approach and shoving so many hooks and arrangement details into their songs that they transform into mini-art-rock-suites while still maintaining a pop atmosphere. Another great example of this is the song “The Name of the Game.” The song moves through three or four seemingly unrelated sections at will and completely seamlessly. I used to kind of look down on the song when people talked about its complexity. That’s because it doesn’t flaunt it’s complexity: it simply makes it part of the song. Try to explain how the band moves from the clavinet dominated first section to the “doo dooo doo doo” acapella section and watch your head explode: you aren’t genius enough to do it on your own.

And the band can, of course, hardly resist adding another “rock and roll” song to their catalog: “Hole in Your Soul” is perhaps the weak point of the album as it does flirt with silliness. How else can one feel about those basso profundo pronunciations of “there’s gotta be rock and roll…to fill the hole in your soul”? However, the song has a true drive to it and great melodies. The complex introduction is almost worth the price of the song.

All of these songs move by so quickly and are so rich in melodic and arrangement details that the head spins. Luckily, the band slows down a few times on the album. “One Man, One Woman” is a gorgeous ballad that sounds as deep as a valley without really commanding too much real emotion. However, the arrangement details make it sound as serious as an opera aria. “Move On” is another slow song but the its genre is hard to touch: what’s up with those stern sounding Bjorn monologues? How come they don’t sound ridiculous when by all right they should? Perhaps it’s because they’re so perfectly contrasted with the equally stern but incredibly majestic vocal harmonies and melodies of the chorus.

Of course, the biggest sign that the band has gotten “serious” is the “mini-musical” (that’s how it’s labeled) that makes up the last three tracks on the album. Bjorn and Benny would, of course, move on to musicals with their epic (and slightly failed) “Chess” musical with Tim Rice. This first attempt is much more modest and simple in comparison: it tells the story of a young girl seduced by the music business and becoming enslaved to it.

A bit cliché perhaps but the storyline is easily ignored. The musical begins with “Thank You For the Music” one of ABBA’s most loved and well known songs. It has such a potential to be cheesy (just listen to the Doris Day or Carpenter’s version to understand that) and so nearly crosses the line at times. But the melodies are truly heart felt and the vocals are full of such warmth and humility that it somehow avoids cheese and emerges as a real and emotional tribute to music. That’s the magic of ABBA: at their best they were basically cheese epitomized without tasting of cheese.

“I Wonder (Departuer)” is a pure Broadway aria, filled with pianos and dramatic vocal melodies. Not really my cup of tea but I won’t cut the band points for my own taste: it’s obviously written fully in line with the Broadway tradition and still features solid melodies and good arrangements. It’s basically a “story” song in that it progresses the story.

“I’m a Marionette” is perhaps the song that departs the most from the typical ABBA formula and shows what the guys were truly capable of when they wanted to try a bit harder. Sure, the dance beat that kicks in during the introduction is pure ABBA but what of that opening bass riff? Isn’t that a bit too fiddly diddly for ABBA? Where did those thick, dense, depressing strings come in? What are all those dramatic, heart wrenching stops in the song coming from? And what the hell is that Kurt Weil-esque chorus stomp doing in an ABBA song? Why are the lyrics so depressing? “I’m a marionette, I’m a marionette, just a silly old clown.”

A perfectly odd ending to a perfectly odd album. The album remains obtensibly pop while delving into arty formulas the band hadn’t really tried. It’s perfectly catchy and beautifully written yet strange and off beat. That’s the beauty of ABBA: on one hand, they’re the most commercial oriented band in the world. On the other, they’re weird enough to close an album with something like “I’m a Marionette.” Those contrasts are what make the band truly unique and worth investigating and reviewing.