Archive | September 2012

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.