Tag Archive | ABBA albums

“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.”