Welcome Back (Or Why I Disappeared, Came Back and Reviewed “Idle Race”)
And so my little break stretched on and on until it had been nearly a year before I posted anything…so much has changed in so many ways but one thing remains…I love music…and I love writing about music.
Hello fans of “Culture Fusion Reviews.” I hope things are treating you well. I’m doing well. I won’t go into it but I will briefly explain my abrupt departure and my triumphant return as quickly as possible:
- New jobs
- Life in general
- Sustaining interest
And there is the biggest problem with writing blogs: keeping up an interest and sustaining an interest. I decided to come back because my new jobs have balanced out, my love life is non-existent (in a good way) and I had a burst of interest to write about music again.
New format though: not doing complete discographies in a mad rush. This is part of what drove me crazy and bored me to tears. Just doing the last album I heard. And the last album I heard was…
“Birthday Party” by the Idle Race.
“Who the hell?” you may say and you wouldn’t be the only one. Idle Race is one of a million “also-rans” of the psychedelic era that had a somewhat unique vision, a decent songwriting voice and excellent production and solid-to-raving reviews (Marc Bolan of T-Rex was a huge fan) that simply didn’t have the “it” factor to make it big and which disbanded after a few years.
However, you can pick up a two CD collection named “Back to the Story” that includes everything they recorded: three albums and a variety of singles and non-album tracks. None of their songs were a huge hit and you hardly ever hear them mentioned but as a footnote…and the only reason they maintain that footnote status is because of their connection to Electric Light Orchestra.
That’s right, ELO: the pomp and circumstance, cello, violin and guitar “classical” prog-pop band led by somewhat controversial songwriter-guitarist-producer (and owner of huge hair and aviator glasses) Jeff Lynne. Basically, the Idle Race was an early proving ground for Lynne’s songwriting, arranging and production genius.
So, is it any good? That’s an interesting question. It’s not ELO: it’s very much a product of its era. This means the songs are generally very gentle excursions into musical whimsy: a 23 second orchestra version of “Happy Birthday to You” is the second track on the album; sound pans from speaker to speaker; music hall melodies clash again mellotrons and off-beat vocal harmonies; pianos, horns and strings take up a huge section of the sonic blueprint, sometimes drowning out the band themselves (also consisting of drums, bass, guitar and piano; catchy, sometimes complex melodies sustaining interest throughout as the arrangements shift on a dime to give the album a surprising sense of diversity.
Basically, it sounds like any number of minor first rate and major second rate psychedelic bands of the time (not an insult: second rate psychedelic bands are sometimes the most fun) falling more on the “whimsy Sgt. Pepper” vibe as opposed to the “psychotic space ravings” of early Pink Floyd. It’s gentle music for gentle people with an occasional burst of fuzz guitar and bass to wake you up. Basically, they often sound like a rougher, tougher “Left Banke” but without so many intense classical leanings.
The lyrics, however, are a different story. Lynne has never been a super amazing lyricist: for ELO: at his worst he’s competent while at his best he can be insightful and interesting. But the Idle Race, and especially this first album, is an interesting study in “musical and lyrical contrasts” similar to the “Steely Dan” method of contrasting gentle, smooth music with wild lyrics (but with different sonic focuses).
Lynne explores areas of madness, depravity, lust, love and the seedy, crazy side of the world in a way he never really touched in ELO. Songs like “I Like My Toys” are nearly child-like in the music and arrangements with a lyrical message that crouches the concept of “toys” with “madness” in a unique way.
To me, this contrast between musical gentleness and lyrical strangeness is what helps the album stand out a bit from the psychedelic pack: while not exactly a completely unique idea the band pull it off well and in their own unique style. Yes, the basic style is very similar to the whimsy sides of the Beatles psychedelic style but delving even deeper into near child-like levels of silliness and musical lightness.
The production is solid and typical of the time with lots of experiments in filtering, panning, sound effects and a dense layering of sound giving the album a somewhat uniform but still appealing sound. Of course, the album isn’t perfect and has some flaws (the uniform sound, the sometimes grating childishness of things as well as Lynne’s continuing obsession with de-emphasizing his great voice) but it serves as an early taster for greater things for Lynne and serves as a good case for understanding why the great Roy Wood held Jeff in such high esteem and why Jeff was able to briefly conquer the world with ELO.
Songs to check out on YouTube:
First song “Skeleton and the Roundabout” is a harbinger of their general style and of the silly delights of the rest of the album: carnivelesque melodies and arrangements, great vocal melodies, solid band performances and arrangements as well as a lyrical message that will have you scratching your head (in a good way).
“Follow Me Follow” continues in a similar vein but in a more sentimental manner foreshadowing Jeffy’s skills with love ballads.
“Lucky Man” a great music hall atmosphere with solid vocal harmonies, a great refrain and a lyrical message that touches on insanity.