Archive | September 2012

“Arrival” Album Review

“Arrival” album cover.

 

1) When I Kissed The Teacher; 2) Dancing Queen; 3) My Love, My Life; 4) Dum Dum Diddle; 5) Knowing Me, Knowing You; 6) Money, Money, Money; 7) That’s Me; 8) Why Did It Have To Be Me; 9) Tiger; 10) Arrival

10 out of 10

And finally ABBA truly “arrives.” The title here, of course refers to the helicopter picture on the front cover while also referring to the gorgeous title track. It also refers to ABBA finally reaching the state of perfection they would achieve for two albums and sporadically throughout their career. Benny and Bjorn’s songcraft has been perfected. Agneta and Frida’s voices are now fully utilized. The band is ready to take over the world.

Which they did with this album: the number of hit singles from this album is staggering. Nearly every song on this album was a hit somewhere in the world, with none of the songs getting bigger than “Dancing Queen.” In fact, this song was their biggest hit in America (their only number one in that rather ABBA skeptical country) and deservedly so.

“Dancing Queen” is their signature song and represents every thing good about the band: a great dancing beat, amazing melodies, beautiful arrangements, head spinning singing and a dozen different hooks. What is more memorable: the opening piano runs, the rising and falling choral parts, the verse melody, the chorus melody or all them combined? A nearly perfect pop song that sets the tone for the rest of the album.

Of course, the album doesn’t start with this song: instead, it starts with the rather “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”-ish “When I Kissed The Teacher.” Of course, Sting painted a portrait of an elderly pervert who got what he deserved: ABBA shows a giddy kid, giggling at kissing the teacher. A bit accidentally perverse perhaps, but the music is great: the opening 12 string riff, followed by a series of breath taking vocal melodies and backing vocal harmonies. The backing chants during the verse are probably the best hook on the whole song.

The band doesn’t stop there with the stunning hits: “Money, Money, Money” has the simply incredible and memorable opening piano and vibes introduction combined with a “loop” of cascading piano parts. Benny plays particularly menacing chords here, in slightly “Kurt Weil” manner. The lyrics, intoned dramatically, are perhaps a bit generic but they work. And the melodies and arrangements are perfect. “Money money money, must be funny, in a rich man’s world” is an undeniably catchy memorable chorus.

Again, ABBA sticks with an aggressively upbeat style of music throughout the album. “Tiger” is particularly aggressive: the drum parts in the verse pound like John Bonham while the girls shout out an aggressive, melody that fits the atmosphere of the track perfectly: the chorus has a disco or dance rock feel that contrasts with the pounding of the verses in a way that emphasizes the strength of both, making both instantly memorable.

However, the band doesn’t stick with just this aggressive style. “My Love, My Life” is one of the band’s most effective ballads. The operatic vocal introduction, the simple but genial string arrangements, the melody, the vocalization: I fear I don’t give the girls enough credit for their vocalization. They truly make each of these tracks come to life by the power of their lungs. The “third voice” effect is prevalent throughout this album. Their harmonies on this track are particularly effective.

The band also combines an aggressive and downbeat approach with “Knowing Me, Knowing You” perhaps one of their best known songs. The aggressive guitar parts of this song actually highlight the melancholy of the melody and the lyrics. The lyrics here are not embarrassing but aren’t great either. Fun fact: the song was originally known as “Number One, Number One” as the band predicted great success for the song.

I really hate describing every track like this because it begins getting a bit predictable; great arrangements, beautiful melodies, amazing singing. Each song has its own identity, this is true but each song is ABBA to the core and could never be anybody else.

For example, what other band could take a song called “Dum, Dum Diddle” and not only make it work but make it work so well? The odd synthesizer opening leads to an upbeat, simple but fun set of lyrics and melodies that are highlighted by the nursery rhyme choruse of “dum dum diddle dee dee dum diddle de dum.” Humpty Dumpty? Who knows: the song is hilarious.

“That’s Me” takes basically the same approach of that song meaning while it’s not exactly a highlight it’s a lot of fun and is well written. This album has no filler: even songs like this, which feel like filler are simply too much fun and too well written to call filler. The band put a lot of work into making the album as entertaining as possible.

For example, the Bjorn led “Why Does It Have to Be Me?” may seem like its out of place but it brings in a weird, roots rock feel that the band rarely flirted with in the past or in the future. Bjorn actually sounds good here, with his world weary tenor sounding 100% authentic for once. The band tries to sound “rock and roll” but fails: however, the song understands this and focuses on the campy aspects of the song to make it a goofy highlight instead of a failure.

Finally, the album ends with “Arrival” a piece of “ambient disco” (!) that has such a beautiful melody that the band simply repeats it over and over again, while adding supporting instruments and arrangement twists. But it has a “disco” feel due to the beat that goes throughout the song. Surely, ABBA were never so serious yet (a precursor of things to come) yet they pull it off by focusing on creating a mood and not spoiling it with their banal lyrics. Instrumental wizard Mike Oldfield does a perfect version of the song.

The lyrics on this album aren’t exactly an upswing from past lyrics, however. Yeah the band gradually gets better: starting with ABBA and continuing for the next few albums, they are simply banal instead of embarrassing. No more “King Kong Song” here. Instead, the band focuses on simple love cliches that sound okay with the melodies and the rhythms being exploited.

Basically, don’t come to this (or any ABBA album, bar MAYBE “Super Trouper” or “The Visitors”) if you want to experience some emotions. The band is always faking their emotions. This is not a crime to me, as pop lyrics are generally banal and ignorable. They’re especially ignorable if the band creates such beautiful pop music as on this album. The band’s first perfect album (out of two, alas) that helped set the stage for the band’s (well deserved and fully understandable) conquering of the world.

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“ABBA” Review

“ABBA” album cover.

1) Mamma Mia; 2) Hey, Hey Helen; 3) Tropical Loveland; 4) SOS; 5) Man In The Middle; 6) Bang-A-Boomerang; 7) I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do; 8) Rock Me; 9) Intermezzo No.1; 10) I’ve Been Waiting For You; 11) So Long

9 out of 10

And suddenly, perhaps unexpectedly, ABBA fully arrives at the sound that would make them international stars and one of the most interesting and consistent pop bands in the world. Bjorn and Benny’s songwriting finally reaches the “ten hooks a second” level that they are best known for while the girls finally become the real singers and centerpieces of each song.

Usually. Of course, there’s still those Bjorn lead songs that can kind of turn people off of listening to ABBA albums instead of a greatest hits collection. Bjorn gets at least one vocal per album and although his vocal pieces are drastically down, there are still two here: “Rock Me” and “Man in the Middle.” Many people completely dismiss these songs as fluff and poorly sung filler.

Fluff is a relative statement: if one wanted, you could argue that everything ABBA wrote was fluff. Yeah, Bjorn is simply nowhere near the singer of the two girls, even if he is rather pleasant if boring on the ears. His attempts to growl out “rock me!” are a little silly but more tolerable than “King Kong Song.” Here, the band enters into a rather genial musical hall groove that, while being a bit generic, is still catchy.

“Man in the Middle” shows ABBA trying out funk (guys loved dancing right from the beginning) with rather genial clavinets. However, Bjorn simply cannot sing these “socially relevant” lyrics with the proper conviction. And really, why is ABBA trying to make us think? They’re the opposite of thinking man’s music: they’re for shaking your hips and laughing your ass off.

Or maybe not: any songwriter interested in writing high quality pop should listen to songs like “Mamma Mia.” Yes, the musical is corn ball and the song has lyrics too banal to sing along to: but the music and arrangement of the song is just incredible. How many hooks does the band add to the song? The first, slightly chromatic piano (and percussion) riff that opens the song: the slitherly electric guitar riff that rings out through the introduction: the catchy as malaria vocal melody: the short but memorable string riff that pops up between the vocal melody: the “why why, did I ever let you go?” section: the refrains to the already catchy musical parts. The song is an incredibly efficient piece of writing that, once it lands in your head, is impossible to ever get out.

The other big hit that comes from this album is “S.O.S.” which still stands as an amazing piece of music. The introduction has that moody, story telling piano riff crossed with the minor key synthesizer noodling. The verse melody is pleading and nearly convincing with some of Benny’s most beautiful piano work. The chorus kicks in with the instantly memorable and genius chorus melody, backed by simple but beautiful guitar parts (the part after “and when you’re near me darling can’t you hear me SOS” is beautiful simplicity epitomized).

However, the absolute best part of the song comes with the brilliant, brilliant key change in the second half of the chorus (“when you’re gone”) which combines with the synthesizer parts to create an utterly crushing atmosphere of depression (for a band as fluffy as ABBA is usually portrayed).

These were the big hits but the album is amazingly consistent, even considering the flight road bumps of Bjorn’s blurts. “Hey, Hey Helen” is one of ABBA’s best, if not the best, heavy guitar led songs the band ever wrote. The riffs are better written, memorable and even ominous. The melodies are simply unforgettable and the lyrics are really, really weird (kind of an anti-feminist screed, if you can believe it). The song is rather lumbering sounding its slowness but it somehow works.

“So Long” is another great piece of guitar led rock and roll. In fact, I believe this is ABBA’s best try at a guitar led song. The guitar tones are very weird: the introduction sound is completely unique to rock and roll and pop. Then, the band enters into a heavy guitar groove, lead by the heady, spinning voices of the girls. When they start wailing “so long! So long! SO LONG!” at the end of the song, you’re entering dork rock (as this is completely in that genre) heaven. “Bang A Boomerang” is very similar in that it is very fast, guitar dominated and completely nerdy (the chorus of “bang…a booma boomerrang” is soooo cheeseball that it’s absolutely genial). Great songs.

ABBA even takes their chance to go a bit proggy with the classical rock fusion “Intermezzo No. 1.” While some prog fans may have a laugh at this song (it’s not 20 minutes long after all) it’s such a fun and energetic instrumental that it’s a huge highlight of the album. ABBA doesn’t forget to put the “rock” into “prog rock” here. The band and Benny in particular (the piece was his baby and is keyboard dominated) show off their chops. Benny was a HELL of a keyboardist and this piece shows that off fully.

This album actually rarely slows down to show off the balladeering style that ABBA later became well known for mastering. However, “I’ve Been Waiting For You” helps develop the successes from the last album into a seemingly heart felt (but probably not) highly operatic, near Broadway ballad. Luckily, Benny and Bjorn had entered their “can’t do wrong” phase, so the song works in spite of the potential cheese. Of which there is still plenty.

The band also shows off something approaching a cabaret style with “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do.” The saxophone led arrangement may be very cheesy and the melodies are pure cabaret. But what cabaret act could take two words (I do) and turn it into a complex and engaging chorus? Only ABBA. Not a highlight, perhaps, but a nice little diverse side car on the album.

Basically, the album is the culmination of the work the band was doing on the first two albums. Even though the album is incredibly diverse, each song is wrung through the boys genius melody and arrangement writing skills to make each song maximally effective. This isn’t the “what are we gonna do?” type of diversity from “Waterloo.” This is a band at the peak of their powers trying out different styles to prove that any type of music can be turned into hilariously catchy and incredibly stupid, incredibly fun pop music. The fact that ABBA only gets better after this album (for awhile) is simply astonishing to me.

“Waterloo” Review

“Waterloo” album cover. Note Napoleon in the background.

1) Waterloo; 2) Sitting In The Palmtree; 3) King Kong Song; 4) Hasta Mañana; 5) My Mama Said; 6) Dance (While The Music Still Goes On); 7) Honey, Honey; 8) Watch Out; 9) What About Livingstone; 10) Gonna Sing You My Lovesong; 11) Suzy-Hang-Around; 12*) Waterloo (Swedish version).

7 out of 10

ABBA’s first internationally released album (and their first as ABBA) is an improvement over the rather flaccid (if inoffensive and even occasionally fun) album but not a major one. Everything is just a slight step up from the previous albums with only a few drop offs. This makes “Waterloo” the most diverse and inconsistent album in the ABBA catalog. The good material is great, the bad material is…

…”King Kong Song.” All right, time to say it once again for the benefit of Mr. Kite (guy’s dumber than Mr. Jones): ABBA rocking out rarely, rarely works. And it’s never more apparent here. The opening guitar riff isn’t awful (a bit simplistic but a bit menacing in a dorky type of way) and the song actually does have a thick, rock heavy sound to it.

But then Bjorn comes in and starts singing about King Kong. No metaphors here, no sly wink at the audience to show the band is goofing off. I’m sure the band is (they aren’t dumb guys) but it’s hard to tell with Bjorn: his singing, while pleasant is always so stiff and white bread you can’t tell if the guy has a sense of humor. Yeah, he’s smiling constantly in all ABBA photos, save a few, but that is irrelevant.

“Watch Out” works a bit better in this department but the unconvincing lyrics and atmosphere don’t really create the mood they are trying to achieve. It’s as simple as this: yes, the songs are catchy and even memorable. But I’d be embarrassed to show these songs to a friend. And I’m sure a majority of the world thinks these are lame songs. Bad feel for a “Universal” band such as ABBA.

There are also a few attempts at non-ABBA type sound, such as the “Caribbean” sounding “Sitting in the Palmtree.” Or rather, what the band thinks is Caribbean sounding. It has a pleasant melody but the arrangement is so banal and generic that it’s hard to enjoy.

“Hasta Manana” works a bit better but still reeks of cheese. Oddly, “Honey, Honey” actually works for me, in spite of it being the most sexual sounding ABBA song ever. One fears the band would slip into absolute cheeseball territory with the song but the sexiness of the girls voices and the solid arrangement and melodies of the song help make it work. And “What About Livingstone” sounds way too pompous and self important to be high quality: the melody and arrangements are bad but the band sounds too “word of God” to be adequate.

The band is naturally at their best when they’re doing their whole ABBA schtick. “Waterloo” is obviously the stand out track. It follows a similar “bulldozer” attack with “Ring, Ring” but the melody is more masterful, the arrangement more intricate, the lyrics a tiny, tiny bit better (merely slightly embarrassing instead of completely) and the girl’s really nail the singing.

None of the other songs really “nail” it like “Waterloo” but they are generally better than “Ring, Ring”’s attempts at songwriting. “My Mama Said” is one of the weaker tunes as its a bit generic and boring. But I’ll be DAMNED if I can’t get the chorus out of my head. A solid, if uninspired piece of generic songwriting.

“Dance (While the Music Still Goes On)” begins ABBA’s “dance” song fetish in full. It has a great arrangement and a solid, catchy melody. Lyrics are stinky but again you gotta expect that with this band. It’s one of the better songs on the album but is still relatively primitive compared to “Waterloo” let alone the masterpieces on the next album.

“Suzy Hang Around” is the only song by ABBA to feature Benny Anderson on lead vocals (featuring worse than usual lyrics by the same man who left lyrics to Bjorn and Stig in the future). It has a pleasant ringing guitar line, some solid vocal harmonies, a catchy vocal melody and a nice, plaintive folk sound to it. Not a bad way to close the album.

But I can’t end the review without mentioning the pen-ultimate track. The “beautiful ABBA ballad” style is nailed, completely nailed on “Gonna Sing You My Lovesong.” Yes, the lyrics are absurd but the melody hits emotional buttons that are enhanced by the solid arrangement. This song, along with “Waterloo” really point the way towards future ABBA successes.

So while the album is basically a heavy improvement it’s also a bit of a retreat. The annoying songs on this album are even more annoying when surrounded by the better songs. In fact, the annoying songs on here actually threaten to be worse than the annoying songs on “Ring, Ring.” I wanted to give this an 8 so bad, but then I hear “this is the King Kong song, won’t you all sing along?” and I have to drop the album a point. Don’t worry: from this point on, ABBA would become consistent to the point of pain.

Ring Ring Review

“Ring Ring” album cover.

1) Ring Ring; 2) Another Town, Another Train; 3) Disillusion; 4) People Need Love; 5) I Saw It In The Mirror; 6) Nina, Pretty Ballerina; 7) Love Isn’t Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough); 8) Me And Bobby And Bobby’s Brother; 9) He Is Your Brother; 10) I Am Just A Girl; 11) Rock’n’Roll Band

6 out of 10

ABBA began when Benny Anderson (keyboards) and Bjorn Ulvareus (vocals, guitar) left the folk rock band they were in that was going nowhere fast. The two realized they had a potent songwriting partnership and started to write together quickly. They started working on a series of singles that were going to be put out under the name “Benny and Bjorn.”

That catchy little name expanded when the boys singing girlfriends, Agnetha and Anni-Frid started singing on their material. In no time at all, the band name expanded to the incomprehensible “Bjorn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid.” Suddenly, “Anderson,Wakeman, Bruford and Howe” seems a bit less insane.

The four quickly realized they were working on a lot of material. They and their record label decided to put out all the material in the form of an album of music for this oddly named band. Later on, the band’s manager and part time lyricists, Stig Anderson, suggested “ABBA” (combining the first initial of the band member’s name in a rather clever way). This album wasn’t credited to “ABBA” until later.

That’s the basic, basic history of this record. The other that should be mentioned is that it didn’t come out in America or indeed many parts of the world until decades later when it was released on CD for the first time. For all intents and purposes, American’s believed the next album, “Waterloo” was their debut.

How does this record stand up against the rest of ABBA’s output? Frankly, it doesn’t stack up very well because the band was still trying to find their sound. These early albums by ABBA are insanely diverse for this reason. Sure, the band undoubtedly wanted to create a diverse listening experience that appealed to everybody. But they also had a wide range of influences that they hadn’t learned how to completely synthesize yet.

Plus, the band honestly has moments of very poor, stupid taste on this album. Yeah, the band often showed off this bad taste throughout their career, these were usually minor (such as jumping on the disco band wagon AFTER it was dead but still creating great disco tracks (no, that’s not an oxymoron)). Here, however, it’s nearly crippling.

The album starts out strong with the louder than God himself track “Ring, Ring.” I should mention now that Benny and Bjorn were big fans of the Phil Spector “wall of sound” approach. They tended to double and triple track things to make them larger than life. Nowhere in this approach more obvious than in “Ring, Ring.”

The song itself is a bit of a trifle: the lyrics are brain dead even by ABBA standards. The verse and chorus melody are very catchy but much more simplistic when compared to later ABBA masterpieces. But the appeal of the song is not in the melody and lyrics but in the pure sound. The sweep and loudness of this simple pop song is nearly orchestral in texture and approach. And when the chorus kicks in, it’s hard not to feel a big stupid smile erupting across your face. That’s the magic of ABBA: taking dumb materials and potentially cheesy approaches but making them work.

Sadly, this is really the only true “power” moment on the album. The rest of the album is even slighter than this already lighter than air track. And none of them really use that powerful production method. Why should they? It’s clear this album was thrown together as quickly as possible.

That isn’t to say that the songs are necessarily bad, per se. After listening to the album a few times, I still can’t get the chorus to “Nina, Pretty Ballerina” out of my head. I still hear the loud “thump” of kettle drums that hooks me up during the chorus of “Love Isn’t Easy (But It Sure Is Hard Enough)” and the awkward stomp of “He’s Your Brother” is like jam in my ears. Plus, the album also includes the solid ballad “Disillusion” which has music written by Agnetha, the first and last time she contributed music to the band (much to the disappointment of the boys, who encouraged her to contribute music constantly).

So, the album has catchiness, some diversity (“Love Isn’t Easy” has something of a music hall sound mixed with a generic rock stomp, while “He’s Your Brother” is a bit folksy) and the basic sound of ABBA. Why does it get such a low rating in comparison to the rest of their output?

Well, sadly, because the songs kind of suck. This is where the difference between “catchy” and “memorable” lies. I’ve gone in depth on this before so I won’t dwell but “catchy” melodies stick in your head while the song’s out and fall out seconds after it’s over while “memorable” melodies stay with you forever.

Besides “Ring, Ring” few of the melodies here are truly memorable. They are often trivial to the point of nursery rhyme level with little variation or development. This is truly a rough blow for a band that became true masters of melody variation and development later in their career. True, none of the melodies are exceptionally “bad” but they’re lighter than helium and just don’t stick around as long as you’d hope.

And the lyrics, oh God, the lyrics. True, ABBA always had pretty weak lyrics. And I’d also like to state that if I were to try write lyrics in Swedish, I’d not only do it much worse than the ABBA guys do English, I’d actually completely fail: Babelfish would be my only source of translation and we know how well that would work.

But you can really feel the embarrassment with this album simply by reading the song titles. The songs previously mentioned write about their subjects in the most banal, literal way that it can be hard to take. Yes pop lyrics aren’t poetry but hearing a song about “Me and Bobby and Bobby’s Brother” where the singer is playing in a tree is a tad…childish.

Which is the main problem with the album. It comes across as hideously childish, as if the band was pitching down their ability to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Yes, as a silly, throw off pop album it actually kind of works: it’s ear pleasing and pleasant the whole time. But breaking it down reveals huge weaknesses that simply cannot be ignored, such as when the band tries to lamely rock out on “Rock and Roll Band.”

All in all, though, it has enough pleasant melodies and enough diversity, variation and clever arrangement tricks (I didn’t even go into the band’s arranging abilities yet but don’t worry, I will) to make it listenable. But this should be your last ABBA purchase. You might even be able to live without it, as long as you have “Ring, Ring” on a greatest hits or something. Or if you buy one of those cute collections of ABBA albums that come with bonus tracks.